By Jeff Walsh
Reading "Michael Tolliver Lives," the latest installment of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series (though the author decries such classification), something is amiss.
Now, truth be told, I'm a bit of a drama queen. So, when I moved to San Francisco more than 11 years ago, on my first day in town I bought a trade paperback version of Tales of the City at A Different Light, the gay bookstore on Castro Street, and started to read about the city as I was first discovering it myself.
Then, I was reading about a city that no longer existed, with the sexual revolution pretty much dead and the ravages of AIDS having hit urban areas pretty hard. But, there was still magic in those books and you can still see some of that magic when you look hard enough. (If you want to cheat, go to a gay bar here during gay pride, tourists drop their guard about how amazing this place is much easier than the embittered locals.)
The series painted a picture of an amazing city, a group of friends, and over the course of many books, we saw their lives intertwine, separate, and change direction. The series was never more than Maupin's simultaneous diary and love letter to the city. So, reading this latest entry, there are too many things that I know are about Maupin, and it was too hard to rejoin the world of Michael "Mouse" Tolliver on this journey.
I know Maupin met his much-younger boyfriend on a website where guys are looking for older "daddy" partners. As a survivor of the AIDS pandemic, Maupin shows what the city is like for a generation that lost too many friends, and how running into people on the street after years of not seeing them (assuming they were dead) brings back so many memories. So, when these things happen to Mouse, you know it's coming direct from Maupin.
I guess this is just the first book where Mouse failed to materialize. When I started reading the books, and having seen the PBS series, he was a separate entity from Maupin. But now, the lines showed a bit more. You could see where the story was attached onto this reality-based structure, where the seams were between Maupin and the fictional elements.
Sexual content also seemed to struggle to find a line between defiant inclusion and needless description, never coalescing and just seeming to fit gracefully into the story. It was also a bit sad to think that you would run into a stranger after decades, not know their name or who they were, but memory sparked, you can picture his cock and the fun you had one afternoon. I know the scene was supposed to be playful and about the spirit of the pre-AIDS gay community, but I've always drifted more Larry Kramer than Edmund White in that regard.
It just seems like this could have been a non-fiction essay from Maupin about the state of gay community, and what it's like to age in this place that used to have so much magic and promise (and does it still?). Or a Tales of the City installment that brought back all of the characters.
Instead, it had the feel of a "with special guest stars" reunion episode. Every so often, you'd get an appearance from Anna Madrigal and others from the book, but with the first-person narrative and its title, it is really intended to just be Michael's story this time around. Everyone else is mainly backdrop.
There is so much goodwill built up in this world he has created for so long, it is still a quick, delightful read. And, you can't help but want to know about these characters. One of my fears was, upon reading this volume, that Anna Madrigal might be dead and, even though it's fiction, I prefer a world with her alive and full of wonder. So, seeing her thriving in her 80s, although no longer at 28 Barbary Lane, was like hearing good news about an old friend. Maupin does have the ability to write about the current San Francisco, with its yuppie condos and gender-challenging transfolk, but it is nearly impossible to put any of that up to Mary Ann Singleton getting off the bus in San Francisco, naïve as can be, and making a life for herself surrounded by a crazy, loving bunch of people in the 70s.
It seems somewhat unfair to criticize Maupin for basically writing truthfully about two different eras in the same city. But, since it uses the same characters, there is little way around it. Maupin is like sex and pizza, though; even when it's not the best you've had, you don't regret it. If this book serves a way for new readers to find the older books, then that's reason enough for it to be out there.