If Chicago author Benjamin Lytal were the typical writer of semi-autobiographical fiction, his first novel would have been the story of a young man who escaped his hometown in the interior of the country to become immersed in the colorful characters and witty conversation of the New York literary scene. The hometown — in this case Tulsa, Okla. — would barely have registered in the rear-view mirror, if that mirror had been consulted at all. But neither Lytal nor his elegantly crafted debut novel, “A Map of Tulsa,” are the least bit typical. Like Lytal himself, the book's hero, Jim Praley, leaves Oklahoma to go to college in the Northeast, and later works for a magazine in New York.
But also like his creator, Jim is less interested in the bright lights of the Big Apple than in the enduring fascination of his hometown, which pulls at him with an almost tidal force. "I had been to grand cities, ones with bigger more crenellated skylines — cities like battleships, bristling with darkness," Jim muses early on. "But it was the simplicity of Tulsa's skyline that had always stumped me. ... (As) a little kid I always knew the place to suddenly strain on my seat belt, to catch the skyline swerving into view. This was how I always told myself we were home: like a fanfare of towers, downtown. It was supposed to be our castle."
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In his teens, Jim comes to view Tulsa's downtown as weirdly empty, but as the novel begins, he returns from college to view it with fresh perspective. There he stumbles into a doomed summer fling with Adrienne Booker, the daughter of one of the city's wealthiest families. Five years later, Jim returns from the East once again — this time to the hospital bedside of Adrienne, who has suffered a serious accident — where he becomes enthralled with her aunt, Lydie, a glamorous businesswoman whose aura of power Jim finds hopelessly seductive.
"Although I lived in New York in my 20s and loved it there, somehow my real life was elsewhere — specifically in Tulsa, where I grew up, and where more meaningful things were happening to my family and friends," Lytal, a slender 33-year-old with flecks of silver in his jet-black hair, says over lunch in his neighborhood of Lincoln Square. "Somebody asked me the other day if cities have identities, and if so, what was Tulsa's? I didn't have an answer to that directly, but I think that people want cities to have identities. Certainly I wanted Tulsa to have an identity, both when I was growing up there and later, and I thought that my desire for Tulsa to mean a lot was a story that didn't always get told in novels. I felt people were writing about moving to New York, or their travels abroad, but I wanted to write the opposite of that. Jim's great adventure, it turns out, is not in the Big Apple but in Tulsa."
And so Lytal proved that, Thomas Wolfe notwithstanding, you can go home again — although home may not be what you thought it was, and getting there may change you forever, for good or ill.
"It's a great love letter to his hometown," says Lytal's agent, Edward Orloff. "It's rare to find a medium-sized American city written about so well and with such depth. ... Ben could have written about a young man moving to New York and becoming a book reviewer, but he didn't."
The son of schoolteachers, Lytal grew up "in Tulsa proper, but the neighborhoods were suburban, in that you had detached single-unit houses, backyards and driveways," he says. "I think there must be a lot of other cities like Tulsa, where you have a core of skyscrapers, and (it) looks very urban, like New York or Chicago. But very quickly, leaving it, you have a more suburban-style layout and feeling, and you always think, 'What's going on in those big tall buildings on the skyline?'"
Lytal went to Harvard, where he studied modern French and German literature, and where he met his future wife, Annie Bourneuf, now an assistant professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (and the dedicatee of "A Map of Tulsa"). There he wrote arts criticism for the Harvard Crimson and short metafictional stories, both of which gave him entree to literary circles whose membership "was premised on a minimum of creative output," he says with a smile. "Which was fortunate, because my stories were very short, a page or less. I never knew if I could write anything any longer than that."
From Boston he migrated to New York with no particular plan — "It was just the bus I took," he later told David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker — and landed a part-time job as the assistant to that magazine's poetry editor at the time, Alice Quinn. "When the phone rang, I got to pick it up and say, 'Poetry,'" he recalls. "It was one of those tricky young-adult situations where you have a great job but it doesn't really pay very well."
To make ends meet, Lytal became a book reviewer for the now-defunct New York Sun, where he established a reputation as a tough critic. "I was very young, very callow when I started writing book reviews, and I was pretty hard on people," he says a bit sheepishly. "I've outgrown that." It was in this period of professional and artistic growth — during which he reviewed, among other touchstones, British author Alan Hollinghurst's Booker Prize-winning "The Line of Beauty" (2004), the Jamesian tale of a young gay scholar's life as a guest in the home of a conservative member of Parliament in the Thatcher era — that Lytal realized that his own ambition was to write a more or less realistic novel, rather than the metafictions of his youth.
He began what became "A Map of Tulsa" in the winter of 2005-06, finishing a draft while in Switzerland with his wife, who had a fellowship in Bern. Working in a room with a view of gamboling sheep in the pasture across the road, Lytal wrestled with the problem of writing a novel, for which he had no formal preparation. "I drew up a calendar and thought that if I wrote 1,000 words a day, I'd be done in two months, which would be wonderful," he recalls with a smile. "But that didn't work, of course."
Back in New York, Lytal thought the book was done — until he showed the manuscript to friends, "one of whom was kind enough to let me know that I had a lot more work to do," he says. "I ended up working on it for about four years." Some of the input came from Orloff, who had first become aware of Lytal through his work as a critic at the Sun. "I pointed out a few things for him to work out, but my input was minimal, really," he says. "Ben is a perfectionist, and he took it on himself to get back in there and put a lot more into it."
Fortunately for him, working on the book was a joy, even when it kept him up until the wee hours, as it often did. "In the late summer of 2009, when the writing happened to be going well," he recalls, "I would stay up all night, and I was as happy as I've ever been."
Finally, about two years ago, the manuscript was ready for Orloff to send out to editors such as Penguin's Allison Lorentzen, who was impressed with the quality of the writing, in particular Jim's descriptions of Tulsa and the way his love affair with Adrienne changes the way he sees the city. "Adrienne pulled the city inside out for me: she chose the most built-up streets for our morning walks — for a block or two we existed in an urban canyon; had we gone the opposite way, the horizon would have emptied out, the skyscrapers would have given out on limp down-tempo parking lots and strip malls," Jim muses. "But for a block, I at least could imagine that we had been born in a bigger city. I loved to talk about that, alternate destinies and fate. I liked to pretend it was very strange to have been born in a place like Tulsa."
Lorentzen loved the manuscript from its first page. "It felt like Ben was telling the classic coming-of-age story in a new way, and in a new place," she says. "I think he writes incredibly beautifully about Tulsa, a place I've never been, and really only exists in my imagination though Ben's novel. But even though I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, I could relate to the book because I felt so connected to the way he writes about returning to your hometown. It was that sense of returning home, which happens twice in the novel, that I felt was something that readers across the country would connect with."
Now, with his life established in the Windy City — where he teaches literature at the University of Chicago's Graham School and at the Newberry Library — Lytal still sees Tulsa as home, though with the sharper eyes of a maturing artist. "It's extremely normal, but also strange, to change as a result of moving away, and to be a different person, and to see your home in a new way," he says. "Jim sees Tulsa as dead, as maybe not even being real, and that frustrates him. Each time he comes back, he wants to see, now that he's older, whether he can get more out of Tulsa than he did when he was growing up."
Jim Praley gets a girlfriend, at least for a summer, and later a job. Ben Lytal gets a book and the successful launch of a career.
All in all, a pretty good deal.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"A Map of Tulsa"
By Benjamin Lytal, Penguin Books, 256 pages, $15 (paperback)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun