I acquired this book in a funny way. At the end of March, Jill and I spent a day in the quiet, upscale northern California town of Danville. We had lunch, browsed in a bookstore, and toured Tao House, the mountain retreat where Eugene O’Neill spent several years near the end of his life and wrote several of his most famous plays: Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and others. I’m sure that one day soon one or the other of us (or both) will put together a blog post about this trip – if only to show you our photos of Eugene O’Neill’s pajamas and tell you about our eager-beaver tour guide, Tad.
Before our literary field trip, however, we spent time in a wonderful independent bookstore called Rakestraw Books. I had read several positive reviews of A Map of Tulsa, which had just been released the previous Tuesday. Earlier that week I asked for it in a Barnes and Noble and was told they didn’t have it in stock. I asked for it in Rakestraw Books, which looks like (and is) exactly the sort of place that would have the sort of books that Barnes and Noble doesn’t keep in stock, but I was told that they didn’t have it either. The person behind the counter – who was also the owner, I think – hesitated a minute and said, “I thought we did have that book – I know I’ve seen it somewhere,” but the computer said it wasn’t in, and computers don’t lie. Jill and I each bought a couple of books and were ready to go, but first we needed to use the bathroom.
(You’re surprised – I know. I’m sure it must seem to you that bookbloggers lead such glamorous lives and surely must never need to use the bathroom like ordinary mortals. You must think that when we need to eliminate waste products from our bodies, one of our servants just appears to do it for us. But alas, we poop and pee just like everyone else. You might as well know. We even use deodorant and, like, breath mints and stuff.)
Jill used the bathroom first, and while I was waiting for my turn my eyes scanned the books on a shelf that was located right outside of the bathroom, and they almost immediately landed on A Map of Tulsa. “Excuse me,” I said to the owner. “Remember that book I asked you about, but you said you didn’t have it? You actually do have it. It’s right here. Is it for sale?”
We exchanged a chuckle over the coincidence. “You can have it,” he said, handing the book to me. The books on the shelf near the bathroom were advance copies for reviewers and bookstore owners and librarians, and of course he received it for free and was not allowed to resell it. It doesn’t contain any of the usual information that appears on the title pages of books, and inside the front cover a letter from Alison Lorentzen, an editor at Penguin books, praises the novel hyperbolically and begs us to love it as much as Ms. Lorentzen does. She includes her phone number, too. Maybe I’ll call her someday and direct her to our blog. I’m sure she would enjoy Postcards from Purgatory as much as you all do.
This book is okay. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the reviews I read led me to believe I would. Its first-person protagonist is Jim Praley. In Part I of the novel, Jim is nineteen years old and home for the summer after his first year of college. In lieu of a summer job, he has assigned himself an ambitious reading list and a secondary project to fully embrace his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma for the first time. As a child and teenager he was always focused on amassing a series of achievements with the goal of leaving Tulsa, and his plan to reconcile himself with his native city is the sort of half-artsy-half-cynical thing that precocious nineteen year-olds do, and it strikes me as consistent with Jim’s character.
Jim meets up with a high school classmate who takes him to a party at the home of another high school classmate, where they meet up with Adrienne Booker. Adrienne was in Jim’s high school class, but she dropped out before they graduated. Jim barely remembers her. She is an heiress to the Booker Petroleum fortune, and her aunt Lydie is one of the wealthiest and most powerful businesspeople in Tulsa. Adrienne is estranged from both of her parents and has only a civil relationship with her aunt, but she lives in a penthouse apartment at the top of the Booker Petroleum building and lives a rambling life as an artist, musician, and general angst factory. She and Jim begin a romance that involves spending time in her studio, where Jim pretentiously gives Adrienne art history lessons out of his college textbooks and halfheartedly scribbles poetry while she paints. They take a series of aimless walks and drives through Tulsa, attend parties, and experiment with drugs. Ho hum. If someone had offered to pay me a bunch of money to write the quintessential novel about the summer after a person’s first year of college, this is the novel I would have written. Except that I wouldn’t have set it in Tulsa, because even just thinking about Tulsa in the summer gives me heatstroke. I’ve been to Tulsa in the summer. No, thank you.
Don’t get me wrong – this novel is well written. In terms of its language and Jim’s identity as a narrator, this novel is an original, and I can’t think of any other books or authors from which it seems derivative. It also strikes me as emotionally honest, at least insofar as Jim is a pretentious nineteen year-old who is starting to suspect that maybe the process of understanding himself has to involve understanding his native city, but his sense of irony is directed so aggressively outward at the world that he fails to notice that the lens through which he chooses to view Tulsa – i.e. Adrienne – is such an anomalous lens that he will never succeed in coming to terms with Tulsa as long as he is experiencing Tulsa with her. He can, of course, learn more about himself through his romance with Adrienne, and he does. Overall, though, the characters and situations in this novel do not strike me as especially original. They are plausible, but they’re clichés. Real people can often seem like clichés, of course, but they’re not – not when you spend enough time getting to know them. One of the hardest jobs that the fiction writer has to do is to write characters that mimic the very human tendency to be almost clichés, and I don’t think Lytal really reaches that mark here.
Part II of this novel takes place five years after Part I. Jim has graduated from college and has a low-paying job at a prestigious magazine (which seems based on The New Yorker, where Lytal worked after his own college graduation). One day he receives an email from a high school listserv and learns that Adrienne was in a motorcycle accident and is in the ICU with a spinal fracture. He has lost touch with Adrienne, who returned his lengthy emails after he returned to college with one-word or one-sentence replies and soon stopped returning them at all, but on an impulse he races to the airport and buys a ticket to Tulsa. At the hospital he finds Adrienne’s aunt Lydie and estranged father, Rod, whom Jim has never met. Everyone is baffled to see Jim, who after all was a part of Adrienne’s life for only a couple of months. Jim’s parents have moved away from Tulsa by this point, so he is back in his home city for the first time since the summer he dated Adrienne. Jim roams the streets of Tulsa on foot and in his rental car, sits by Adrienne’s bedside for hours on end, reacquaints himself with some of Adrienne’s friends, and begins to court the idea of quitting his job in New York and moving back to Tulsa.
This novel is obviously supposed to be about the power – the almost gravitational pull – of home, and of course, this highly subjective feeling is hard to write about. Shortly before he is supposed to fly back to New York, Jim abruptly asks Lydie if she would hire him to work at Booker Petroleum. She is a little taken aback, but she is convinced by his explanation that this visit to Tulsa has made him aware of how profoundly he doesn’t belong in New York and how much he wants to return home. I find this kind of capricious relationship to one’s home city plausible and have experienced it myself – have been experiencing it myself, as a matter of fact, for my entire life. But while I was so ready to be convinced by Jim’s change of heart toward Tulsa, nothing that Lytal does on the page convinces me that his feelings are real. Depicting a spontaneous change of heart in a fiction character is very hard, of course – an author has to prepare the reader for it almost from page one, through a chain of actions and thoughts that seem unobtrusive when we encounter them for the first time but highly portentous on a second reading – and I don’t think Lytal succeeds at setting Jim up for this kind of transformation. I had to supply too much of the emotional connective tissue of Jim’s decision from my own experiences, and I shouldn’t have had to do that. This novel is about Jim, not about me (at least insofar as any book is not fundamentally about its reader as much as it is about its protagonist. As Tad the Tour Guide from the O’Neill house would say: Whoa. Deep.)
The end of this novel reminded me of a lesson I learned in the senior seminar in fiction writing that I took as an undergrad. The lesson came from an arrogant, obnoxious classmate – exactly the kind of person that I did NOT want to be learning life-changing lessons from, but whatever. Sometimes we have to take wisdom where we can find it. I was workshopping my third or fourth story of the semester, and this obnoxious jerk of a kid thought he had the measure of me (and, OK, he did). “Your endings are always beginnings,” he said. It took me a minute to figure out what he meant. I tended to end my stories either with nasty confrontations or with my protagonists making important decisions, and what my classmate meant was that my stories should have begun in the aftermath of these confrontations and decisions. Fiction about the consequences of our actions is more compelling than fiction about the prelude to these actions. I thought of this advice (which was absolutely, 100%, correct, and I became a better writer as a result of it) when I was reading the last twenty or thirty pages of A Map of Tulsa. What I thought, specifically, was that I want to read the book about the twenty-four year-old graduate of an elite east-coast college who quits his New York publishing job on a lark to move to Tulsa to work as the personal assistant (for that is the job that Lydie offers Jim) to the imperious oil-magnate aunt of his comatose ex-girlfriend. Think of the possibilities: what kind of bizarre tasks will Jim face as Lydie Booker’s personal assistant? How will Adrienne react when she comes out of her coma? Jim would, of course, have to immediately meet another woman to rival Adrienne as his love interest – and how would he choose between them? You see what I mean, right? We all live through periods in our lives when we embody various clichés, but these periods of our lives end, and it is in their aftermath that stories are born.