Tales of the City Revisited

Michael Tolliver LivesMichael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin.
Review by Steven van Lijnden, Special Orders, ABC Amsterdam

Working at a bookstore comes with certain perks, like coming across the Advance Reader’s copy of a book by one of your favourite authors, months before it will be available to the general public. While I knew that a book was in the works, I was slightly stunned and overly excited when Armistead Maupin’s Michael Tolliver Lives was dropped in my path. The book is a sequel – of sorts – to his well-known Tales of the City series.

I had mainlined all of Maupin’s Tales during one trimester while I was a student. They chronicle the unlikely and endearing adventures of an ‘alternative’ group of friends that form a sort of family during the seventies in San Francisco, at 28 Barbary Lane. The story was originally written as a serial for a newspaper, which explains the short chapters, regular cliffhangers and fast pace. The feel for dialogue was amazing, and the easy writing style made for breathless reading. In later books, the style evolved into a more regular ‘novel’ format, though the events were still charmingly farfetched.

The odd part of my reading experience was that I saw one episode of the television series (produced in 1993) beforehand – the one based on the first book – and carried the cast over to the literary mindscape. For me Anna Madrigal, the lovable landlady with a secret, was and always will be Olympia Dukakis. The actors fused with the characters in my mind. Therefore I could only accept it with some resentment when some of the parts were recast for later series… which neatly brings me to Michael Tolliver. In the previous books, he was a major point of identification for any gay man, sixties-born or not, looking for love in all the wrong places. I wanted to be him and date him at the same time. Which possibly means I was a bit messed up.

When we last left him, about twenty years ago, Michael was HIV+ and things did not look good. Many readers assumed he wasn’t long for this world. However, when I stated this concern on a message board at the Barbary Lane website (now offline), I was rapped on the knuckles for this by the webmaster. I had assumed that Michael lived a bit too far in the past to survive long enough to benefit from new AIDS treatments, but as it turns out, I am now quite officially wrong. And I am happy to be so, because it means that Michael Tolliver Lives!

The character has aged as much in years as the books have, putting him in the 50+ bracket. The lover we left him with was lost and now we find him in a May-December romance, having to deal with the impending death of his birth mother, the ill health of his ‘adoptive’ mother and with his religious sibling. Most of the old cast is present or mentioned and feels comfortingly familiar, like old friends rediscovered. But this is very much Michael’s story. For the first time we find ourselves right in Michael’s mind, since the book is told in first-person perspective. For lovers of the original series, this is disorienting for a moment, as – in combination with him having aged – it makes him feel like a different character. It is not a big deviation for Maupin, however, as both of his most recent books ( Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener ) were written in first-person narrative. The tone and mood also carry over from his recent work: wry, melancholic and sweet, without being saccharine. As with The Night Listener, it’s hard to keep from wondering how many autobiographical elements have found their way into the story.

As for what actually happens: unlike the previous books, this one is more of a character study than a wacky rollercoaster ride of events; no cannibalistic cults to be found here. There are thoughts about family (the one we are born with and the one we choose) and other big issues: love, aging, death. If that makes it sound downbeat, well, it isn’t really. As the title suggests, Michael is just very much aware and grateful that he is Alive.

The dialogue flows easily as always and you will feel sad at how fast you ripped through the book. It seems unlikely there will be more forthcoming about this little family, unless retirement homes and Zimmer frames are involved. But as Michael Tolliver has learned: hope springs eternal.

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