26 March 2013

A Map of Tulsa (Benjamin Lytal)

Lytal's lovely debut novel, A Map of Tulsa, reminds me yet again that, despite the chip on my shoulder regarding the genre's overstated prestige, I really love well-done, well-written, deeply-felt literary fiction, like, a lot. (Conversely, I find bad, or even mediocre, literary fiction much harder to take than, say, less-than-stellar fantasy, which I tend to enjoy despite its faults.)

Tulsa is the story of two trips the narrator, Jim Praley, takes to his title hometown after heading off to college in New York. The summer after his freshman year, he returns having
maybe [become] conceited about Tulsa, mentioning at just the right moments that I was raised Southern Baptist, had shot guns recreationally, had been a major Boy Scout--I may have agreed, when people smiled, and pretended that Tulsa was a minor classic, a western, a bastion of Republican moonshine and a hotbed, equally, of a kind of honky-tonk bonhomie.
(I know, what a gorgeous sentence, right? And pitched so perfectly for the character, nineteen and caught in that state between assumed sophistication and the childish drive to please. Because Tulsa isn't really like that at all, as Jim and the novel well know; it's just an easier narrative to tell.)

At a party, Jim meets and pursues Adrienne Booker, who's beautiful, rich, and complicated in the way that heroines tend to be in books written by men, though far less annoying than most of them end up being. (Yeah, Lytal's that good.) After an affair of idealistic intensity--instantly relatable, potently specific--Jim heads back to school, and loses touch with Adrienne, though she's always in the back of his mind, "used . . . like a kind of high C, to put my head into tune." Five years later, after learning Adrienne's been in a motorcycle accident, he impulsively flies back to Tulsa, with little sense of what, if anything, he's trying to recapture.

My favorite thing about this book is the setting; novels set in big cities and small towns run rampant, but it's extremely rare to read a book set in a mid-size city like Tulsa--or, of course, my hometown of Wichita, 133 miles away, with roughly the same population (400,000ish; Tulsa and Wichita are the 45th and 49th largest cities in the U.S.). While the experience of living in a place like this bears superficial similarities to the suburbs--the style of the houses, the lack of pedestrians--it's . . . just not, in ways that I'm no good at articulating but Lytal really, really is. He's clear-headed about Tulsa's limitations, but willing to stick up for it where warranted: "I didn't have to heart to tell Rod that decent-enough sushi was widely available in Tulsa.") I'm thrilled to have such a worthy reference document to hand readers asking what it was like to grow up where I did--and why I'm excited to go back.

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