A Year of Unknown Books: Tales of the City Series by Armistead Maupin

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Tales of the City & Michael Tolliver Lives Michael Tolliver Lives Tales of the City
by Armistead Maupin
Books #8 & #9, read during June and July, 2015

When I found out that I would be traveling to San Francisco for the 2015 American Library Association Conference, I naturally referred to my librarian coworkers to recommend books that take place within the city limits.  When I travel, I love to read fiction for a particular locale because beforehand, it warms you up to the culture and when you return, it helps to bubble all of those sense memories to the surface again.  One of my most well-read and hippest coworkers recommended Tales of the City (TOC) by Armistead Maupin.  For her, it had special meaning because she traveled to Frisco* during the 1970s, coincidentally when the first of the series takes place.  Flash forward to 2015, two copies of the book on the shelf (not just one), which is indicative of its steadfast popularity.

The experience of reading TOC was an interesting one because of its unexpected results (the best kind!).  As I began reading, I was slightly put off by the very 1970s language, almost to the point where I wondered if the vernacular of the era and locale was written in jest.  You know, a lot of far outs, dudes, doobies, don’t you come here oftens? and of the like.  In the end, the language came to enhance the experience of the novel; if you weren’t alive during the 1970s, you’ve been given the gift of a genuine cultural artifact, and if you were alive during the 1970s, then here’s your passport back in time.  The content of the book details the interwoven lives of a variety characters who all live, love and smoke together in an apartment on Barbary Lane in San Francisco under the protective wing of landlady Anna Madrigal.  Like many of the TOC characters, Anna has a beautiful soul, is whip smart, wise (and can I be her when I grow up?) and possesses the ability to corral a family together for herself, or as she puts it, her “logical family.”  As the novel came to a close, I realized that my skepticism turned into a love affair and I felt such sadness as I closed the book.  Maupin artfully describes the personalities, pasts and current dramas of each character but does so with an amazingly skillful hand that the stories are finely handed to us in the most believable of ways, as if you’re sitting in a friend’s living room having a conversation over cocktails.

Since writing TOC, Maupin has written a plethora of other novels about the specific lives of some of the Barbary Lane characters and luckily, my new addiction was satiated by Michael Tolliver Lives (MTL).  As MTL takes place in current day (late 2000s), we fast forward from when we met him nearly three decades ago.  In TOC, he was a sensitive, fun, sweet guy and in the years has only become the wonderful, concentrated version of himself.  I don’t know if MTL is based on Maupin’s real life, but I truly hope it is because Michael’s life: his partner, his job, his friendships, and his character (his essence) are perfection in their purity, because Michael is a gentle, pure soul.  And can I also say that I really enjoyed the relationship, including the sexual life of Michael and his partner?  They are in touch and honest about their needs and express them openly with each other, and I loved Michael’s accepting yet insecure inner monologues regarding his partner’s consensual extramarital relations.  Maupin shines a light on the universal truth of long-term relationships; self-doubt always rears its ugly head, no matter how long you’ve been together.  It was also refreshing to read about a healthy sex life from a gay male’s point of view because on a personal level, I feel that I am constantly inundated with a white hetero male’s point of view of sex, which is fairly homogenous.

In MTL, Maupin also catches us up on the lives of our other beloved characters and in true Maupin style, he threads in details of their lives because he knows that even though the book is about Michael, the friends’ lives and well-being, who by now are our friends, are just as important to us.  As I closed Michael Tolliver Lives, I was struck with a similar feeling of de ja vu; I was heartbroken that the tale was over, akin to saying goodbye to a good friend at the airport when you don’t know when you’ll see them again.

What makes Maupin such an impressive storyteller is that his content is ahead of its time, tapping into issues that are just below the surface of the mainstream cultural consciousness.  In TOC (again 1970s) Maupin introduces us to an array of transgender characters and mind you, we were still in the thick of the fight for gay rights, and Maupin dares to write about not only trans individuals, but shockingly, trans characters in love!  With friends!  As people!  In MTL, he delves further into the thoughts and emotions of some oldie and newer trans characters and really does a service, especially to the straight (and oftentimes clueless) world by breathing life into the intricacies of the lives of these trans individuals.  What Maupin does for trans people is groundbreaking because humanizes them, thereby taking away their otherness.  This is especially pertinent to this specific time in our history with the increased visibility of such trans figures as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner (there’s even an Armistead quote during the first episode).  Way before the dialogue even began on a larger, world scale via social media, Maupin understood the importance of visibility.

Maupin’s books are the great equalizer: Catholic, gay, straight, trans, queer, and all along the spectrum of personhood, there’s really something for everyone, and something with which you can become newly acquainted.  If you need a good book(s), if you need to feel, to armchair travel to San Fran, to fall in love with a new friend, I cannot stress enough that you read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series.

*I thought Frisco was a city in the south.  In Merle Haggard’s song “Here in Frisco” I actually thought he was thinking about “Frisco,” a southern city that he missed because he was visiting some big city.  No comment needed.  Thank you to my own spouse for enlightening me.