A Burn Scar in the Shape of the Sooner State

by Pierce Smith


In August 2011, I left a desirable internship and sublet in San Francisco for Tulsa and law school.

The first conversation I had when I arrived was with my cab driver—a pseudochivalrous Texan expat—as he took me from the airport to my new apartment on the west side of the Arkansas River. He asked my opinion of violence when employed in the defense of a woman. He told me about a big Indian man (as in native to America) he’d laid out in a parking lot after the man had smacked his girlfriend in front of the cabbie. Because of a cluster of papilloma that had emerged on my vocal cords over the summer, and a deep indifference toward what I imagined was a greatly exaggerated story, my responses were limited to inflected grunts.

As we crossed the Arkansas River, I recalled mu recently ex-girlfriend’s conviction that Oklahoma was home only to gun nuts and religious fanatics. (A belief founded on a handful of drives through the Sooner State on family road trips; hearing her, one might imagine they barely made it through to Texas, crossing the state line with car doors pockmarked by bullet holes and the windshield obscured by evangelists’ pamphlets.) I tried to dismiss this notion as the ignorant fear mongering it was. Time and again, people—and Tulsa itself—met me with open arms and promise. But, worn down by a slew of surgeries and feeling lonely, I turned inward and dwelled deeply on What Should Have Been, romanticized versions of my ex-girlfriend’s life in Boston, and self-pity. Four months of this defeatist brew culminated in an anti-climax. I did not rise to meet the challenges of a new city but unceremoniously dropped out of law school and moved to my parents’ house in Illinois.

A year and a half later, in Chicago, I met Ben Lytal for coffee at an Intelligentsia near Millennium Park. I had seen Lytal’s first novel, A Map of Tulsa, mentioned on a most-anticipated list for 2013 and immediately felt a kinship. Since I’d left, Tulsa had evolved into a totem of my post-graduate transition into “real life.” A self-idealized proving ground that had found me wanting and spit me back onto my parent’s couch and into a software sales job in The Loop. The aforementioned ex was dumping me again after a short, financially damaging attempt at a long-distance relationship, and, tapping into a life-long belief that books and music can solve any crisis I encounter, I was looking for Lytal’s novel to bring some closure to the pattern I’d begun in San Francisco.

And it did, somewhat. A Map of Tulsa is a tribute to both the city of Tulsa and the unfortunate men and women (boys and girls) who forge relationships from naiveté and insecurity with the best intentions of finding love. A breed of the disastrous relationship we’ve all watched implode from afar, or been privy to as a combusting agent.

I arrived at Intelligentsia an hour early and settled into a corner by the front door. I jotted crude observations of my surroundings trying to dispel any nervous anticipation, e.g., dancers twirling by the windows in a studio above a crêpes shop across the street, arms positioned parallel to their heads, elbows arched out to form parentheses; every guy in here has a beard and all the girls are wearing glasses. I made a note to ask Ben about the three-way scene.

As another patron entered, I’d glance from the corner of my eye with a look of feigned disinterest, in case it was Lytal. He arrived, wearing a fuzzy maroon sweater over a button up. I was able to identify him by the mussed black hair and glasses of his Twitter profile.

We shook hands, exchanged greetings and he mentioned that he’d considered inviting me to his home for the interview, but his wife had been concerned about their privacy. Being a judge’s son, I sympathized with her pessimism. Still, I couldn’t help but feel touched.

Lytal had never been interviewed, and minus a smattering of indie bands I’d talked with for my college’s radio station, I had never interviewed anyone. This shared frontier served as a momentary remedy to my performance anxiety, until I remembered his pedigree.

Lytal has had a fairly prolific career writing for publications such as The Believer and The Nation. Though a Tulsa native, he spent a decade living in New York City before his move to Chicago last year. He now teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago. While living in New York, Lytal worked at The New Yorker, taught at the Pratt Institute, and wrote a column on new fiction for The New York Sun. Apart from a summer in 2004, Lytal hasn’t lived in Tulsa since he left for Harvard, though he noted with surprising confidence, “I could see myself living there one day.” He considered staying in Tulsa at one point during that summer, but he had a job waiting in New York.

The Tulsa represented in Lytal’s book is very different from the Tulsa of 2013. Set in the late ’90s, A Map of Tulsa channels an understanding of the city as Lytal experienced it growing up. For this debut novelist, it “seemed like a utopian dream to have more than one bar.” Lytal remembers an empty downtown, except on Sundays, when people of varying faiths would emerge from the suburbs and fill the streets on their way to worship. He would look at downtown Tulsa and think, “What is that? What is it for? Why do I go there?”

* * *

A Map of Tulsa reminds me of a song I listened to obsessively while living in the eponymous city. The last lyrics in the song are, “The first time / the last time / all the times in between / the first time / the last time / all the times I would’ve liked there to have been.”

Often I’ve glossed over important experiences in my life, naturally bookending them and assigning a narrative that elevated the daily eff ort of living. As is the typical case with big-hearted boys of poetry, Lytal’s narrator and protagonist, Jim, much like myself, becomes restless in situations where the emotional payoff is minimal or none, yet balks when confronted with true intimacy. Adrienne, the love interest and damaged heiress to oil money, wavers between idol and ideal, an evershifting receptor for Jim’s projections of Keatsian love. Jim maintains by compelling them toward such extremes as firing off a revolver in Adrienne’s art studio and a near threesome with her childhood friend-cum-protector, Chase. A wrenching contrast, Adrienne is simply happy meeting Jim’s parents and seeing his childhood home.

A Map of Tulsa is most powerful when it reads in the key of the last line of the song. Lytal tunes his sentences to reflect Jim’s tremendous nostalgia for a deeply personal and ultimately nonexistent Tulsa. A Tulsa built upon an equally nonexistent version of his girl Adrienne. A Tulsa that Jim would never have left.

* * *

Lytal struggled with his understanding of the city. He paraphrased advice William James had given to his brother, Henry, when he was living abroad: “You don’t understand Europe, you’re embarrassing yourself. Write about Boston.” In this sense, Lytal views A Map of Tulsa as an expat’s novel.

Part of Lytal’s college orientation was an icebreaker tailored to the background of each student. The orientation leaders pulled factoids from each freshman student’s geographical background and inserted them into the template, “X vs. X, who would win in ten rounds?” For Lytal, the hypothetical pugilists were S.E. Hinton of The Outsiders fame and fellow Tulsa native Larry Clark. When his orientation leader asked Lytal to call the bout for Hinton or Clark, he found himself thinking, “Who is Larry Clark?”

For those of you who share in young Lytal’s ignorance (and I was in this camp prior to my interview with him), Larry Clark is the Tulsa-born photographer behind Tulsa, a collection of black-and-white images published in 1971. The photographs were taken between 1963 and 1971 and document the youth of Tulsa engaged in a slew of compromising and provocative activities. Though
Hinton is no pushover, I’d have to put my money on the amphetamine addict who’s made it to seventy.

Originally, the book was set in New York City, but Tulsa was always in the back of Lytal’s mind. (For evidence, see his short story, “Weena,” in the eleventh issue of McSweeney’s. That piece seemed to anticipate A Map of Tulsa, coloring a post-apocalyptic Tulsa in the same ecstatic, dream-like tones.) Much like a first love, returning to one’s hometown, if only in spirit, offers those with romantic minds hope for a better understanding of self. This combined with long-dormant seeds left over from his freshman orientation might be found at the root of Lytal’s decision to switch the novel to Tulsa.

* * *

“Even though I had grown up in Tulsa, I felt more comfortable in New York. I was on the edge of understanding when it came to Tulsa,” he said. Beyond the desire to break from earlier work in short, experimental fiction, writing an outsider novel about Tulsa seemed to Lytal like a compelling challenge.

This sentiment is mirrored in Jim. One can’t help but get the feeling Jim spent most of his high school years seeking out extracurricular opportunities at the behest of his parents and then went on to achieve a well-balanced and attractive undergraduate resume. In the presence of Adrienne, Jim sees Tulsa as if for the first time. She belongs to the city in a way Jim, who grew up with the understanding he would leave Tulsa for school, never could.

“Choosing a city to live in becomes a dilemma,” Lytal said. “There seems to exist a particular sort of mobility nowadays. An ability to go away and come back again.” (A Map of Tulsa was originally titled The City I Chose.)

This could quickly veer into a discussion of class and privilege, which the author quickly acknowledged, but too numerous are the stories about Generations X and Y being reduced to a quivering support group of pill-popping neurotics because of exposure to an excess of choices. Instead, what I find interesting is how much of our formative years are spent feeding the anticipation of leaving home for college. And, whether it’s one year or four years later, what it’s like coming back to those who never left.

* * *

Around the time Ben and I noticed we were taking sips from empty mugs, I brought up the writing and publishing process behind A Map of Tulsa. I’d been thinking about first books a lot leading up to the interview. Two classmates of mine from Iowa were taking to Twitter to promote their debut publications, which left me feeling equal parts inadequate and curious. I don’t have a manuscript to sell, but something about the conflict between writing for oneself and being recognized for that work has always fascinated me. This applies to any of the creative disciplines really—painting, music, stand-up comedy, dance—anything fueled by transformation of self into art, I suppose. Lytal said a friend of his had asked him a similar question and was disappointed by the answer. Things have just worked out for Ben Lytal, which is not to say he hasn’t put in the time and paid his dues. He took a moment then said, “Opportunities like this were sort of the reason I moved to New York.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 6. March 15, 2013.