When an author returns to a group of characters or a plotline after an extended absence, fans of the story are often left wondering if the author is short on cash or attempting to recapture some of his former glory.
Such is the case with the release of Armistead Maupin’s Michael Toliver Lives, what is ostensibly the seventh book in the Tales of the City series.
“I had toyed with the idea of coming back to Michael just because I had lived as a bachelor in the Castro for awhile and I thought there was something interesting about a man of a certain age who had been around for a long time,” Maupin recently said at a reading at Elliot Bay Books in Seattle.
“And while I’m not HIV-positive myself, many of my friends are and are still around, and I wanted to celebrate, basically, their courage — the courage it’s taken them to stay alive and to continue to try and be good, full-fledged human beings; the stamina it’s taken. I thought Michael would be the perfect vehicle for which to do that.
“Since I had found my happy ending in Christopher Turner,” Maupin adds, referring to his husband of three years, “I thought I would give Michael a happy ending as well.”
Described as a “stand alone” book from the others in the series, Michael Toliver Lives could best be described as an extended epilogue to the first six books that concluded with Sure of You in 1989.
In many ways this new book is like bumping into an old friend you haven’t seen in 18 years, which is exactly how we are reintroduced to Michael Toliver — during a chance encounter with an old trick who has assumed him for dead.
What began as a serial on the back page of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, Maupin’s Tales of the City followed the lives and loves of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane and became a bible to hipsters and wannabes the world over. Dickensian in scope, characters from different tiers on the social ladder intermingled with each other in their quest to find the perfect job, the perfect apartment, and the perfect lover — but never all at once.
Maupin’s column was so popular, the Zodiac killer addressed letters to him and in the 2007 movie Zodiac it’s implied that Maupin threw police off the trail of the true killer.
Detractors of the books complain they are light and trashy, but re-reading them, one is struck by how serious the plotlines are despite the author’s light-hearted approach to describing them. More importantly, the books offer a valuable firsthand account of the gay movement as it was actually happening.
“Through the imaginary residents of 28 Barbary Lane,” Maupin writes in the introduction of the first Tales omnibus, “I could comment on the follies of the movement in a way that journalists wouldn’t dare.”
Nonetheless, there is a certain amount of skepticism on the reader’s part going into a story they have assumed was over. Can the author re-create that old magic? Does this book even matter?
The answer is yes on both accounts.
Maupin spends the first chapter filling us in on what has happened to Michael since we last saw him nearly two decades ago. He has traded in his nursery Plant Parenthood to work as a private contractor, and his activist lover Thack, for Ben who is 20 years his junior. He is still in close contact with his former housemate Brian Hawkins and their landlady, Anna Madrigal, who have both aged considerably. And though his characters are still libertines at heart, it is San Francisco that has changed its tune.
“All those imperial dot-commers in their SUVs and Hummers barreling down the middle of Noe Street as if leading an assault on a Third World nation,” Maupin writes. “And those freshly minted queens down at Badlands, wreathed in cigarette smoke and attitude, who seemed to believe that political activism meant a subscription to Out magazine and regular attendance at Queer as Folk night.”
Michael has weathered these changes in the City and the anti-viral cocktail rather well for his part; so well, the book starts to stray from reality into a sort of Disneyfied version of gay life.
When Michael tells Ben that he is HIV-positive there is no tension or anxiety before or after, Ben shrugs it off as if Michael has just told him he snores. Anyone with HIV knows it’s never that easy to tell someone you’re positive. It isn’t until later that activist-Maupin resurfaces as in the scene when a bar patron tips him off that the man Michael is about to go home with was once a woman.
“I remembered another guy, another total stranger, who once ‘did me a favour’ by tipping me off that a potential playmate was HIV-positive. I should have told him I was positive myself and had no use for his health warning. I should have said I found him ridiculously old-fashioned, since anyone in his right mind these days — especially around here — presumes everyone to be positive, and takes responsibility for his own fucking health, because there is no free ride anymore, you sorry-ass, gossipy, old leather Nancy.”
Once Maupin taps into his anger and frustration with the world we live in, the book starts to pick up steam. In the fashion of its predecessors, Michael Toliver Lives takes it cues from current events such as Terry Shiavo, the high price of real estate, the war in Iraq, and of course Red and Blue America.
To a certain degree the book is a wake-up call to a younger generation that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, there really is a Holy War being waged against homosexuals and we’re losing.
On a more profound level, this is a book about living with the choices we’ve made in our lives. What has made the Tales of the City books so endearing is the adopted family that is 28 Barbary Lane — what Michael calls his “logical” family as opposed to his biological one. At age 55, Michael finds both families on a collision course with each other, forcing him to choose between the two at a crucial moment in his life.
However serious the book may become, it is distinguished by Maupin’s trademark humour, and flair for camp. One scene in particular involving the disembodied voice of a Toyota Prius, is laugh out loud funny. The book is also a comfort to gay men in their 40s that there is love and sex after 50 — and lots of it.
At the reading in Seattle, Maupin was asked if he had tapped into a muse for this book. He said, “If I had a muse it was a 33-year-old that lived in the Bay Area and was versatile.” He went on to describe his friendship with his mentor Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bochardi.
“They were the reason I felt no trepidation whatsoever about jumping into an inter-generational relationship. Back in those days, Chris was 75 and Don was 45 and I had never seen a lovelier couple — they took care of each other in every possible way and encouraged each other’s careers.
“I interviewed them shortly before Chris died and at the end of the interview I asked Don, ‘It’s a little embarrassing to ask this since we’re friends but do you two still sleep together? And Don said, ‘Oh yes! And, uh, you know… intertwined!’ Which was the most hopeful message for the future I could possibly find.”
While the previous six books are not required reading for Michael Toliver Lives the experience of getting to know the characters is what makes them so believable and so heartbreaking when some of them die.
Maupin described a time when someone on his website asked if he was going to fire Olympia Dukakis, who played Barbary Lane’s landlady, Anna Madrigal, in the TV adaptations of the books, for her “controversial position” on the war in Iraq.
“I wrote back saying nobody I know thinks it’s a controversial position — and besides Anna Madrigal would feel the same way. That provoked other fans to come in and start battling with this guy online and I guess he felt ganged-up on, as he should have. And he said, ‘What really got me was he [Maupin] said that Anna Madrigal would take that position. How would he know what position Anna Madrigal would take?’
“That’s curiously satisfying as a writer. To think you have created someone who has a completely separate identity from you, even if you have the same initials.”
Retracing the Tales
Tales of the City (1978)
Michael moves into 28 Barbary Lane with Mona Ramsey after getting dumped by his Marine recruiter boyfriend. He meets and falls in love with gynecologist Jon Fielding at a roller disco. Michael goes cruising with Brian, 28 Barbary Lane’s resident lady’s man. To pay the rent, Michael enters the Mr Jockey Shorts contest. He wins but loses Jon Fielding as a result. Maryann Singleton lets Michael in on the secret behind the mysterious disappearance of the nebbish tenant, Norman Neal Williams.
More Tales of the City (1980)
Maryann Singleton inherits $5000 from her boss and takes Michael to Mexico on the Pacific Princess. He re-unites with Jon Fielding in Puerto Vallarta who is there at a gynecologist convention. Michael is paralyzed by Guillain-Barre disease. In the hospital, Michael comes out to his parents in a letter after they tell him they have joined Anita Bryant’s “Save the Children Campaign.”
Further Tales of the City (1982)
Jon has left Michael to become a doctor on a cruise ship. Michael goes on tour with the Gay Men’s Chorus, then to a gay rodeo with a cop, and has sex with a Rock Hudson-like movie star. Jon confronts Michael on his fear of commitment telling him, “You don’t have a life; you’re just fucking the Village People.”
Michael is celibate and mourning Jon Fielding’s death from AIDS. He swaps apartments with a British sailor and befriends a gay teenage squatter. In England Michael is reunited with his estranged roommate Mona who has married a lord so he can get a US citizenship. Mistaken for a couple, Brian and Michael are fag-bashed while jogging.
Significant Others (1987)
Michael has tested HIV-positive and is taking AZT. On a trip to Alcatraz, Michael meets Thank Sweeney. Michael, Thack and Brian, Maryann’s husband, go camping while they wait out the 10 days for the results of Brian’s HIV test. Michael and Thack descend on the Bohemian Grove in search of a rich crone who is being held captive at a women’s music festival.
Sure of You (1989)
Michael and Thack have bought a house together in the Castro. Michael is at war with his mother in Florida. Maryann invites Michael to an open house where he confronts a Calvin Klein-inspired fashion designer on his marriage of convenience to a woman at the height of the AIDS crisis. Michael unwittingly tells Brian, his business partner, that his wife is leaving him and their daughter, for a job in New York.