Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I Left My Heart in San Francisco

I've been a fan of the Tales of the City books since I was a teenager. I'm not even sure how I got introduced to them, but I collected them all and got to the point where I barely even needed the actual book anymore to read it. I could just sit quietly and think about it.

The final book of the series ends on a down note. A marriage between two of the main characters ends abruptly when one turns her back on her adopted home city, her friends and her family to pursue a career in New York City. The landlady that linked them all, transgendered Anna Madrigal, has left love in Greece to return to San francisco. But saddest of all, kindhearted gay Everyman Michael Tolliver has HIV, and the burden of confronting his own mortality every day.

So the very title to Maupin's follow-up for the series, Michael Tolliver Lives, was heartening. However, I didn't expect to like it much. I read it in one day and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. The 55-year-old Michael Tolliver is much more bitchy than the one in the series, although the difference in point-of-view could account for that. The original series was written in a third-person omniscient; Michael Tolliver Lives is what I used to call an "I book" long before Macintosh ever developed the concept.

The success of Maupin's original series rested partly on him capturing a cultural moment. The series had its birth as a newspaper serial in San Francisco, and millions of readers could identify strongly with one of the characters, or knew someone just like them. When Michael Tolliver wrote his coming-out "Letter to Mama", some gays and lesbians sent it to their own parents with a note reading "me too." This book captures the way society has changed since 1989 (when the series ended). Sometimes it's effective, and other times it's not. Some of the references feel like too obvious an attempt to stay up-to-the-minute (the constant television references grated really fast) but the overall effect of highlighting a society that's been in a state of constant, radical change since the 70s worked.

Like most of the other fans of the series, I came to find out what happened to everyone. Some of the answers were very satisfying. It was good to see Anna Madrigal again, for example, and Michael himself has arrived at a good place. Brian, though, seems to have stagnated and his daughter Shawna's story was one of those grating references I talked about earlier. Mona's story was very sad, and Mary Ann's, like its original ending, was ambiguous. It was good to see everyone again, though.

The main issue I had was with the plot of this book. In the original series, despite the famed coming-out letter, Michael is essentially a child of the city. We know that he's from Orlando and was raised by ultra-conservative born-again orange growers. We know that they never do really accept him. And we even meet them once, when they come to visit Michael in San Francisco during the week of Halloween (there's a hilarious scene where they meet up with some of Michael's male acquaintances dressed as nuns on roller skates). This book is largely about his family drama. We learn that he has a brother -- who knew? -- and a niece and a great-nephew (who, they unsubtly suggest, may be gay as well, although he's only seven.) Michael's mother is in a born-again nursing home, and is dying of emphysema. Michael gets called in to assume power of attorney, and a family secret explodes, forcing Michael to confront his past.

Therein lies the dilemma. "The past", in this case, has to do with his father. We've met ol' Herb, in the second book, and he seems to an affable, if Archie Bunker-ish figure. Very conservative, lots of prejudices, but somehow despite all of this, a likeable, earnest guy who just wants his son to find a nice woman and be happy and succeed. Somehow, though, he's morphed into a drunken, abusive man who deserved to be abandoned by his wife. In the original series, we see several letters from Michael's mother to him. In between her anti-gay activism, they're all folksy and newsy. She talks about their dog, for crying out loud, and yet she never mentions Michael's brother, who lives right down the street? Maybe it's nitpicky. But it annoyed me.

In conclusion, I would say that this is a book for people who knew and liked the original series, or perhaps for people who've always meant to get into the series and never have. If you've never heard of it and have no interest in it, this book probably won't change your mind. If you hated it, the book won't change your mind. But fans will enjoy this one, despite the fact that it could've been better.

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