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~Long before 'Sex and the City' there were 'Tales of the City'~
Back in the late 80s I got hooked on Armistead Maupin's series 'Tales of the City' which followed the lives and loves of a group of friends and neighbours living in San Francisco. I was perhaps a little late to catch the craze since the first six volumes had been completed before I had even picked up the first. Published between 1978 and 1989 they were almost Dickensian in style with their short snappy chapters and serialised format, bouncing between a cast of very different characters and responding quickly to the zeitgeist. The series straddled an era when 'The City' was at the heart of a rapidly growing and deeply frightening series of events; the first occurrences and rapid spread of AIDS and HIV infection in San Francisco's gay community. AIDS itself was not reported in California until 3 years after the first of Maupin's books so the first six books carry a sense of time and place that's rarely been captured so quickly in the written form.The early volumes record a period of wild reckless sexual abandon, the middle ones capture the growing recognition that something was going badly wrong and the later ones establish the deadly 'payback' for years of free love and unprotected sex in a city rich in gay bathhouses and casual sexual encounters. What started as a wild and frivolous set of fun but racy books soon took on a pivotal role in the communication and popularisation of AIDS and HIV awareness.
Lest that sound altogether far too dreary to attract readers, the success of the books was down to their fabulous colourful characters and Maupin's outspoken approach to blending endearing friendships with sexual activities that many of us had never even heard of or imagined. The cast of characters included prim small town girl Mary Ann, her trans-gender landlady Anna Madrigal (that was a very controversial plot line that took many years to play out), voracious lesbian tenant Mona, sweet adorable gay man Michael (Mouse) Tolliver and his wildly promiscuous hetrosexual friend Brian. Together we experienced their loves, losses, joys and devastating disappointments through a world filled with fabulously exciting characters way outside the social circle of most of the books' readership.
For 18 years, all a reader could do was wonder what might have happened to these people. When we left the series Michael's partner was dying (or had already died - I forget the details) of AIDS and Michael has been diagnosed as HIV positive. The title of the seventh book therefore tells the readers of the first six books the news that they most need to know - 'Michael Tolliver Lives'. This long-awaited seventh book in the series, is told entirely in Michael's voice and in a very different, more contemplative style than the previous books. Gone are the short snappy chapters and the speedy flips from one character to the next. Michael has grown up and this is his story.
In this new book, Michael has reached the age of fifty five years old - something none of us readers could have really predicted when we left him many years earlier with the curse of HIV hanging over him. The book opens with him telling us that a long-ago ex-lover stopped him on the street and greeted him with the words "Hey, you're supposed to be dead". He tells him "Guess I didn't get the memo".
Michael's life is testimony to the successful developments of anti-retroviral drugs and to (by his standards) a relatively wholesome life. 20 years with the virus means he's learned a lot but it's been a continuous roller-coaster of ups and downs. His life, he tells us "is still a lurching, lopsided contraption held together by chewing gum and baling wire". The medication keeps him alive but it's not free from side effects or worries.
Michael is married to Ben - young, gorgeous and very much in love - but it's not easy being the older (and infected) partner. Michael worries about all that Ben is missing out on and, thinking back to his younger days, can't deny his man the chance to shop around now and then. Michael's also worrying about his mother - after years of thinking that he would die before her (and this to me was a very interesting theme that was explored very sensitively) she's now unwell and there's unfinished business he wants to deal with before she dies. She's long known about Michael's sexuality and his disease, but how will she react when he turns up with Ben to introduce the old lady to her new 'son in law' who's rather more the age to be her grandson. Then there's the matter of his brother Irwin, born again Christian with rather 'traditional' views and a son who's showing clear signs of being a 'friend of Dorothy' and could use some help from his gay uncle to deal with his father.
Although Michael is very much the star of this particular book, Maupin uses him as a way to fill us in on what's happened to the other characters we knew and loved. Anna Madrigal is old and incapacitated after a stroke. Brian has bought out Michael's share of their nursery (Plant Parenthood!) and is planning to buy a Winnebago, and Mona has long ago left to live in England but I won't tell you her story as that would be a spoiler. The big question mark that kept nagging at me for about half of the book was "Where's Mary Ann? What's happened to her?" Maupin keeps us guessing but by the end of the book we have an update on all of the old gang.
It's not all old friends though and Maupin introduces plenty of new characters - or old ones grown up - to entertain and to avoid that everything is TOO retrospective. Brian's daughter Shawna is working in a strip club and writing a sexually explicit 'blog' that even her old racy pa is uncomfortable with, there's a new female-to-male transexual gardener called Jake, all Michael's crazy relatives and a sexy black hairdresser who teases Michael's mother's hair and keeps her made up so she looks her best at all times. The new characters are presented with the same care and attention as the old familiar ones and Maupin is not just introducing them as 'filler'.
This is a book that's full of introspection about ageing and dying and about what constitutes a real family in our modern times. It's also one that's infused with a sense or both hope and resignation. The Tales of the City series was often about people losing their conventional families and building new ones amongst their friends and neighbours. In 'Michael Tolliver Lives' Maupin takes us back to Michael's conventional family to settle old scores and clear up unfinished business. Old ends left loose for nearly twenty years get tied up, affairs are put in order and peace is made where peace needs to be made. Conventions are challenged with the contrast between brother Irwin and his wife Lenore's seemingly perfect Christian marriage being set against Michael and Ben's very 'modern' approach to partnership and commitment.
There is no way of politely skirting round the issue of sex when reviewing this book. I don't recall the old Tales of the City books ever being quite so explicit. Maybe they were and the memories have faded with time, maybe I've got old and prissy, but I should warn potential readers that there are some very candid and graphic passages of gay sex which may make some people feel uncomfortable. I wasn't too shocked (after 20+ years of reading this guy it would take a bit to really do that) but I did think they were maybe a wee bit TOO graphic and I'd have been happy for a bit of literary closing of the bedroom door or fading off to a scene of waves crashing on the beach in the style of the old classic movies.
This is a book written for Maupin's old fans and readers who loved the Tales of the City. I cannot imagine someone could pick it up fresh without knowing the past of these characters and get as much out of the book. That's not to say you can't read it as your first Tale of the City but some of the subtleties and nuances of the story may fly over your head without a bit of pre-reading. 'Michael Tolliver Lives' was published in 2007 and I got my second hand copy from Awesomebooks.co.uk last year and I loved dipping into a past that I had largely forgotten. I had long ago given away my copies of the first six books and had forgotten how much I'd once loved them. I was prompted to go in search of a follow up after seeing Laura Linney in the wonderful series 'The Big C' and recognising her as Mary Ann from the TV adaptation of the books. I'm glad I was reminded and I've just received a copy of the 8th book in the series - Mary Ann in Autumn.