Jim Praley thought he knew his hometown when he returned the summer after his freshman year in college back East. But the Tulsa he had traversed in the car with his parents becomes a land of adventure in the company of a young woman he meets at a party.
A story about discovery, love and loss, Benjamin Lytal's debut novel, "A Map of Tulsa," brings Jim together with Adrienne Booker, the daughter of an oil family. She is not exactly pursuing a career in art. She is living a life of art -- in her studio, at the microphone as a singer and on the streets as an exploring wanderer. Their relationship, which draws out over the course of the summer, shows Jim possibilities he never knew existed in Tulsa, where as a kid he and his cohorts imagined life elsewhere.
"A MAP OF TULSA"
By Benjamin Lytal
Penguin Books ($15).
Adrienne is different. Conventional Tulsa is her unconventional canvas, as is Jim. He begins to see the city through her eyes and to live his life through her. What had always been a place that seemed to close up at night becomes a place that jumps to life in the dark.
The Tulsa of his youth is somewhat rekindled. He runs into people he knew from high school, but there is little connection left. Even his parents decide to retire and move to Texas.
When he returns to college reluctantly, a few sporadic emails between him and Adrienne seem to be the last tendrils of their union. But Jim imagines seeing her everywhere as he begins a feckless career as an underpaid staffer for a literary magazine in New York.
He had hopes of being a poet, but fails to write. Instead, he attends literary parties and lives hand to mouth.
The dramatic event that makes him return to Tulsa plays out in a few days, when the possibility of great loss merges with a scenario of hope for a future there. When that hope vanishes, he learns that without Adrienne, he has no Tulsa.
This Generation-Y coming of age story is evocative of the city of Mr. Lytal's own youth, a spread-out Western place influenced by Eastern money, a place that seems dead to young people seeking excitement but where intrigue and edginess can be found.
The writing is lively and visual. Some characters are so fully drawn you can almost feel them in the room with you. Adrienne's Aunt Lydie is particularly dimensional. Adrienne doesn't have the same fullness. We see and feel her almost solely through Jim's narrative, and we get the strongest sense of Jim from his interpretations of her. It is an interesting device of character building, almost as if neither exists fully without the other.
The story suggests the theme of finding authenticity that J.D. Salinger plumbed so expertly through Holden Caulfield. Mr. Lytal's characters are older but not necessarily wiser. Adrienne -- whose family laments her failure to seek higher education, but whom Jim defends as more educated than anyone he has known -- is decidedly not a phony. She is a tragic anti-heroine of youth culture.
Jim moves through his life with the conceit and nobility of showing up and being there without exploring the groundwork of his own authentic life.
Running throughout the narrative, perhaps the most subtle and sublime theme, is the relationship we have with our memories of a place. They are everything we have of the place we left, but nothing of the place at all. They make the return both real and surreal, grounded and transitory, and they kick us with the strongest truth about life: You are not the same you when you go home again, and it's not the same home.
Diana Nelson Jones, a former reporter for the Tulsa Tribune, is a Post-Gazette staff writer (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1626).