I passed through Oklahoma during the summer of 2012, but my view was limited to the interstate highways that wind north from Dallas, Texas, all the way to the Missouri state border. I remember the towns of Muskogee and McAlester—the latter being the site of an Army munitions factory and many, many abandoned churches.
I thought to myself, you know the town has seen hard times when even the churches are boarded up and closed down.
For an East coaster, Oklahoma is an imagined place of tornado disasters and not much else, but after reading Benjamin Lytal’s debut novel, A Map of Tulsa, I wish I could’ve spent a little more time in our nation’s forty-sixth state.
A Map of Tulsa is the story of Jim Praley, who returns from his freshman year of college and finds a very foreign city in his own hometown. Over the course of a summer, Jim’s explorations take him from Tulsa’s honkytonk bars to the penthouses of Oklahoma oil scions. His constant guide is the elusive Adrienne Booker, a would-be artist and disinherited daughter of very old money, a girl whose potential and talents shine at first but slowly fade just like the flicker of a firefly exhibited inside a corked mason jar.
In his own words, Jim Praley is a “major Boy Scout.” It’s a forgettable detail, but Jim elaborates very briefly on the significance of scouting in his youth:
“When I walked into the Blumont the number of people in Tulsa I was eager to hang out with had been zero. To me Tulsa was a handful of coevals from church; a troop of boys from Boy Scouts; and of course four hundred people from Franklin high.”
By comparing the city of Tulsa to his Boy Scout troop, Lytal executes an intriguing metaphor. It’s called a synecdoche, wherein a part or diminutive unit is used to signify a larger structure or community. The metaphor could be taken even further—the scout patrol as a city in and of itself.
It’s the same technique expertly deployed in another Oklahoma novel. In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family is not only a family but always a metaphor signifying the collective experiences of their Okie brethren making the same hard trip to California.
Unfortunately, there are no other Boy Scouts in Lytal’s novel and this minor reference to Scouting contributes very little to the development of his protagonist. Regardless, A Map of Tulsa is a compelling coming of age novel for any scout from the Sooner State or nearby territories.