A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal. Penguin. $15.00 272pp.
If you have ever experienced a wet and terrible, but earnest, kiss, or the snuffling and harrumphing of someone trying to sound sexy at an intimate moment but instead sounding more like an indignant mule, then you have some sense already of the narrative style of Benjamin Lytal’s new novel A Map of Tulsa.
The book is divided into two parts, the first dedicated to a nineteen-year-old Jim Paley home for the summer after his freshman year “back East” (as we say in Tulsa), the second to a twenty-four-year-old Jim returning again when the first part’s love interest is severely injured in a motorcycle accident. The accident comes at a convenient time for Jim, who is sick of his life in New York. “I wasn’t writing,” he tells us. “I partied a lot. Literary New York was a round of parties. But you couldn’t quite feel that they were leading anywhere, the way parties in college did. Or in Tulsa.” This sums up the strained aimfulness of the novel well: Lytal is a man unable to peaceably meander but equally unable to blaze a trail. Jim, his protagonist, grasps at the flimsiest of straws upon finding that adulthood in New York just isn’t working out: adolescence, and Oklahoma, in the broadest possible meanings of these words.
“Tulsa is heaven, Tulsa is Italy,” says Chandler on Friends to a boss who has just assigned him to their office there. “Please don’t make me go there.” Lytal, an Oklahoman talking to New Yorkers like a person in Prague persuading tourists to pay top dollar for cheap pilsner, does little to elaborate upon this vision of his native city. Jim recalls “[t]he day I bought Adrienne her gun—I’m still so proud of how crazy that was”—of course, because Texans and Oklahomans have to be packing heat if the mild-mannered Manhattanite is to derive any satisfaction from the thing. “At a certain point in every relationship,” another character says to Jim, “you’ll roll out this thing about Tulsa and the ‘one girl who almost made you stay.’ Women will love you for it. It’ll be part of your repertoire. Your ‘Tulsa stories.’” Unfortunately for us, we are those women Lytal tries so hard, and yet so hopelessly, to seduce.
Tulsa is a sprawling city of around half a million people, located on Route 66, featuring prominently some splendid art deco architecture funded by a massive oil boom likewise commemorated by the so-called “Golden Driller,” a seventy-six-foot statue of an oil worker approached in stature only by Oral Roberts University’s thirty-ton Praying Hands. I have always thought of it as the buckle of the Bible belt. Thanks to 1830’s “Indian Removal Act,” otherwise known as the Trail of Tears, it is the seat of the Cherokee nation. Its rich history also includes 1921’s race riot, also known as “the Greenwood Massacre.”
Deadly tornadoes strike Tulsa every summer. At the Camp Fire girls camp just outside of Tulsa I attended every summer growing up, we frequently found scorpions, and tarantulas, and poisonous snakes. As Lytal does point out, most people are surprised to hear that the terrain of Tulsa is not desert wasteland, but rather rivers and rolling hills wooded so greenly it almost hurts to look at them in the sunlight.
Yet in a book whose principal purported advantage is its exotic setting, Lytal somehow sidesteps anything and everything that might make the city sound verdant, or terrible, or soul-suckingly boring and disgraceful, or hot, or charming—or anything at all. Instead, he gestures at Targets like Targets everywhere else and at highways like highways everywhere else but with different and completely meaningless names, like “the Broken Arrow.” Although Lytal is from Tulsa, he could just as easily have set this book in Portland, or Gainesville, or Sioux Falls.
And while the plot of A Map of Tulsa is able enough—homecoming, love affair, leave-taking, resurgence of love affair in the form of tragic accident, existential questions, fin—the people that populate the plot are not even remotely interesting enough to sustain our attention. In the middle of a unaccountable positive The New York Times review of A Map of Tulsa,the reviewer stopped to acknowledge that “the dialogue is often awkward,” though even this is far too kind—take, for example, this unironic conversation between Jim and a peer about the purportedly remarkable artistic virtues of his newly discovered love:
“Oh my god. Her paintings are so good.”
I shrugged. “They’re very postwar, which I like.”
Her eyes lit up. “They’re totally postwar.”
This is typical of the vertiginously vacuous quality to all the characters and to all their interactions, with no narratorial or authorial distance or perspective to prevent that moral and intellectual vacancy from becoming a full-fledged black hole. But yes, the dialogue is awkward. Nor is dialogue the only aspect of the book to fit that description. “My car was a fly in the great empty barn of the sky,” the narrator confides in us near the end, for instance. “It’s a flying pig, I said. Trapped and harnessed.”
Yet the Times review goes on glowingly, as though all this upsetting ineptitude were simply part and parcel of being a bumpkin, and nigh charming in the context of the Oklahoma landscape. The reviewer makes the preposterous claim, for instance, that Lytal’s sex scenes “have a physicality 50 shades more moving than gray.” These moments are, in fact, the book’s worst: “I came. Her look was calm, accepting, betrothal-like”; “Then she moaned, so Chase could hear. I could not believe how okay I was with this situation.” If the boringly gendered “calm, accepting” and the hopelessly clumsy “betrothal-like” is the best Lytal can do at description, and “I could not believe how okay I was with this situation” the best he can do at contemplation, what about these scenes could possibly move us?
It would be worth comparing A Map of Tulsa to another novel, however. Last year Tin House published a terrific and very memorable one called What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. In that novel, the eponymous Sophie is an ineffable artist loved profoundly and in vain by a young narrator briefly entangled with her in college and reunited with her years later, just as he is tiring of the New York literary scene. Tragedy intervenes at the end. In other words, the same book as A Map of Tulsa, except that Sophie Wilder touches in a truly moving way on thought-provoking questions of faith, vocation, family, honor, death, and memory, among others. Sophie Wilder’s efficient prose makes a stark contract to the glut in Lytal’s book of futile details as to make it unreadable.
This is compounded by Lytal’s very poor judgment in approaching the relationship of center (New York) to periphery (Tulsa): early on in Jim’s adventures, he tells his beloved that he is writing a poem entitled “Outskirts,” in which Tulsa becomes, among other things, a suburb of New York; this novel is no more than that poem, with around 270 extra pages tacked on. Says Jim to his beloved: “I want to be a poet so that I can actually write good poetry. I want to be very good.”
She nodded. “Because you think you already are, right?”
Yeah. If a vapid and protracted confessional poem posing as prose, full of ideas like Tulsa being Hoboken can be very good, then Jim is right on the money here, just as Lytal seems to think he is. If only it weren’t so awkward. If there is a crisis now in American literature and film, the crux of that crisis is in adolescent awkwardness, which may be the mode of the American mind these days, but which is difficult for most people to do in as convincing a manner as Wes Anderson, Miranda July, or Sheila Heti, resulting in much work that is groping and palpating and pitiable, and very little that is actually satisfying.
Jennifer Croft holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Northwestern University and is an editor at The Buenos Aires Review. Her translations from Spanish and Polish appear often in book and magazine form.
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