Back in the mid-1970s, a naïve, 20-something Mary Ann Singleton arrived in San Francisco for the first time. She immediately fell in love with the mystical beauty of the city and its ridiculously fascinating denizens. Making her new home at 28 Barbary Lane, Singleton's life soon became intertwined with the building's colorful tenants: the enigmatic Anna Madrigal, the womanizing Brian, and the sweet, sexy, hopelessly romantic gay guy, Michael Tolliver... So began life in the Tales of the City, the mythical world created by one of San Francisco's greatest literary heroes, Armistead Maupin.
Maupin began cranking out Tales of the City as a column in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976. There were still a few hippies hanging around Golden Gate Park smoking pot, Safeway in the Marina was the place for straights to hook up, and the gay liberation movement was just beginning to make a home for itself in the Castro. There was no such thing as AIDS. It was perhaps one of the most exciting, hopeful times to be living in our city, and the tenants of Barbary Lane were in the thick of it all. Maupin's extraordinary ability to merge local news, gossip and culture with the hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking adventures of Mary Ann and her friends deeply resonated with San Franciscans. Readers didn't just identify with the Tales of the City characters -- they actually were the characters.
For those of us who didn't arrive in San Francisco until long after Maupin's column ceased to exist, we can only dream about what it was like to pick up the Chronicle and "find ourselves" in Tales of the City. However, with Michael Tolliver Lives, Maupin has given Barbaryphiles (the nickname given to Tales fans) some idea of what that experience must have been like.
Although Maupin says Michael Tolliver Lives is not an addition to the six-book Tales of the Cityseries, there's no doubt -- thankfully -- that is precisely what this book is. When we last checked in on the Tales characters in 1989, Mary Ann's former best friend Michael "Mouse," having tested positive for HIV, was preparing for an early death. However, as the title implicitly states, Michael is alive and well, thanks to drug cocktails. And although he's not a regular at the End Up anymore, with regular shots of testosterone and a Viagra prescription, he has an active sex life with a much younger boyfriend. Michael is clearly a character with which Maupin intimately identifies (Maupin, 62, is married to Christopher Turner, 35), and he lovingly writes from Tolliver's first-person perspective.
Maupin recently stated, "I was interested in pursuing the life of an aging gay man, and Michael was the perfect vehicle... However, as soon as I started writing, I found that, one by one, all the other characters stepped forward and asked to be present. It felt natural, so I went with it." Hooray! Brian is contemplating retirement, his daughter Shawna, now in her mid-20s, is an up-and-coming pansexual writer (a character who seems a lot like Michelle Tea) and Anna Madrigal is holding court in her new home somewhere around Duboce Triangle. Whether you've read the Tales books numerous times, as seems to often be the case in this town, or haven't thought about the inhabitants of Barbary Lane in the 18 years since Sure of You hit shelves, it's a genuine thrill to find out what's been going on in the lives of these and all of Maupin's other relentlessly loveable characters. Even if you've never read any of Armistead's books, Michael Tolliver Lives is still a fabulous read.
Much to the delight of his droves of fans, Maupin recently hinted that another book about the Tales characters could be in the works, saying, "I've lived in that world for 30 years, even when I was writing non-Tales books. Whatever I have to offer seems to come through those characters, and I see no reason to abandon them." Armistead's fans aren't abandoning him either. I went to a Maupin book signing at Book Passage in the Ferry Building on the day Michael Tolliver Lives was released. It was quite a scene, with throngs of old ladies, young men and everything in between. Apparently more people showed up for Maupin than did for Bill Clinton.
This book is Armistead at his very best. In this humble scribe's opinion, there isn't an author around that can, with so few words, capture the essence of a character like Maupin. And of course, as in all Maupin works (with the exception of Maybe the Moon), our beloved city is perhaps his most important character of all. Michael Tolliver Lives is a must-read not only for obsessive Barbary-philes like myself, but for anyone who has ever walked down Castro Street or gazed across the Bay from the Marin Headlands, and thought, "Yep, this is where I belong."