A Map of Tulsa, Benjamin Lytal (2013) New York: Penguin.
Ostensibly a story about young love, A Map of Tulsa is a beautiful telling of the long, slow, painful birth of a writer. An artistic young man grows up with a limited view, yet a calling for something greater. Early experiences sear into his brain, then years pass. Life goes on. Maybe he tries to forget about writing, about the creative calling. But he keeps the thread of it alive through the memory of his great love affair. A tragic event is another turning point, but we see that a creative person is not born fully formed overnight. It is a fragile process prone to missteps and outright failure.
Jim Praley, our narrator and the central character, is young with a decidedly artistic personality. He is a keen observer of life, and very reflective on his own experiences. The novel is full of specific language that exactly conjures something physical while also advances character and the story. He is ambitious, naive, insecure, and yet wise enough to realize he contains this mix. My own memories of being that age made it seem sad and nostalgic, yet also made me feel hopeful. I, now in my 40s and much more jaded than Jim, still found this same kind of young man inside me as I was reading.
I still feel the connection to places. I relate to Jim’s desire to be part of something larger, to be part of something more intellectual than I am, more class resilient than I am. And I remember my first love. I was excited, obsessed, over my head in love with someone more outgoing, and seemingly more confident, more talented and bound for success than I was. I don’t suppose any of us ever forget those feelings. And the whole first section of the novel describes with vivid detail exactly what that is like for a young artistic man.
Adrienne, Jim’s love, is obviously his archetypal muse. Jim admits this later on in the story, but even in the heady first section, she is not exact presented as a whole, real person. Jim oversimplifies her, reshapes her in his own imagination, and makes us feel his own passion. But not who she really is. This is not a writing flaw by any means, it is one of the most realistic presentations of how the artistic mind takes real life situations and relationships and transforms them into creative raw material. But Adrienne is not Jim’s only Muse; Tulsa the city is as well. Yes, places can be muses too.
Jim feels his suburban upbringing is outside the center of things, somehow inferior to a more authentic urban experience. I confess i related to this as well, having grown up in the suburbs and escaped to a big city as soon as possible. I still feel the connection to places, I only wish I had Benjamin Lytal’s gift for extolling those feelings.
“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. In Tulsa we drove all night across town to get to a party, feeling as if it was going to be of historical significance when we got there. That was what made weekends fun. We had kidded ourselves– but properly. Now I was merely a dupe.” (p.123)
The Long Gestation of a Writer
I would like to offer this novel to everyone who thinks that artists of a kinds are somehow born fully formed and functioning. The first thing any artist must create is his or her own powers of creation. The journey is not a steady slogging of progress toward the finish line of being a productive, well-balanced creative either. Creative types ignore their abilities, run from their callings, and live whole lifetimes without ever creating anything. Is it because they aren’t good enough, or strong enough, or because they do want want it badly enough?
Jim has all of these thoughts throughout this novel. The crisis of the story could end up being another step on the creative development for Jim (that is my optimistic view) or a darker turn for his life. I suppose it is up to the fates. But what a great journey this novel is, a fast-paced read that pushed so many of my own buttons.
“People like Adrienne and me would go on trying to be artists, until it was too late, and kids like Jenny would long since have accepted the reality of their lives. Chase would be a real artist.” (pp.166-167)