Sunday, October 31, 2010

For "Tales of the City" fans the new book is self-recommending; others owe it to themselves to give the books a shot


Mrs. Madrigal's secret, finally revealed at the end of the first Tales of the City book and series, then becomes pretty much a non-issue. Olympia Dukakis is Mrs. Madrigal; Laura Linney, Mary Ann; and Donald Moffat, the dying Edgar Halcyon.

"You aren't listening, Mom. I'm trying to tell you I'm a grown woman."
"Well, act like it, then! You can't just . . . run away from your family and friends to go live with a bunch of hippies and mass murderers!"

-- Mary Ann Singleton, 25, on vacation in San Francisco, informing
her mother by phone that she's not returning to Cleveland,
at the outset of the original Tales of the City

by Ken

Growing up has always been one of the things the Tales of the City stories were centrally concerned with. Since Mary Ann was 25 when the first story took place, in 1976, that means she's about to turn 60, assuming she makes it to next year. She has at least made it far enough to allow her creator, Armistead Maupin, to offer us the brand-new Mary Ann in Autumn, which has its official publication date Tuesday.

For a certain group of readers, namely those of us who have followed the lives of the onetime residents of 28 Barbary Lane in the six original Tales of the City volumes, published between 1978 and 1989, and then in 2007, after an 18-year gap, the suddenly arriving Michael Tolliver Lives, the newer books are self-recommending, and perhaps also for viewers of the three lovely TV miniseries made from the first three books (first seen in 1993, 1998, and 2001) -- though I suspect these groups are largely overlapping. (Actually, I was not an original Tales reader. I'd heard about the books for years, of course, but didn't experience them until all six of the original books had been published.)

I suspect there are a lot of potential readers who haven't yet discovered these amazing books, perhaps thinking the stories are, in one way or another, too parochial in their concerns, too "in" -- in a "San Francisco hippie culture" way, or perhaps a "gay" way -- to speak to them. This is a misfortune that fortunately can be easily corrected, since the earlier books are now available conveniently in a pair of "omnibus" trilogies (Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, and Further Tales of the City as 28 Barbary Lane: A Tales of the City Omnibus; Babycakes, Signifcant Others, and Sure of You as Back to Barbary Lane: The Final Tales of the City Omnibus), and copies of all the earlier books can be found pretty cheap all over the place.

The first Tales of the City miniseries was made so long after the tales were written that it seemed to a lot of people as if they were blithely unaware of AIDS, whereas of course the books kept all too painfully attuned to the epidemic. The death of Jon, one of the most treasurable fictional characters I've encountered, at the midway point of the original six books hangs over most everything that happens in the later ones. Michael's continued survival as an HIV-positive man is one of their (not to mention his) central realities. But the books are so much more than "gay stories."

I have the rather odd perspective of somehow having only discovered when I was tipped off to the imminent publication of Mary Ann in Autumn that Michael Tolliver Lives even existed. I ordered a copy immediately, and in the meantime undertook a crash expedition through the last three of the original six books, which I hadn't read in ages, and especially hadn't read since the making of the TV versions of the three earlier books. It turned out to be a whirlwind experience indeed. Within a few days I found myself checking the mailbox every day for the "new" book. The night it finally arrived I attacked it, and reached the end about five subway stops before mine on the way home from work the next day. While I wait for Mary Ann in Autumn, I've gone back to the earlier books, whose characters and events are so tightly bound into the later ones.

On reencounter, I was reminded how much I cherish those characters -- what Mrs. Madrigal refers to as a "logical family," for most of us more real than the real kind. In fact, with knowledge of their subsequent lives, I found myself now absorbed by all sorts of things I recalled having once given short shrift. Now, of course, it's hard to read the books without a sensory awareness of the indelible film portrayals: above all Olympia Dukakis's uncanny incarnation of Anna Madrigal, the mistress of 28 Barbary Lane, but also Laura Linney's Mary Ann, and Donald Moffat's Edgar Halcyon, and Billy Campbell's Jon, and perhaps the first Michael (Marcus D'Amico) and Mona (Chloe Webb).

It was always evident, but now strikes me as even more striking, how vivid, believable, and grabbing Maupin's portrayals of his straight characters are. Are there any straight novelists who could deal as engrossingly with gay characters? The relationship between Mary Ann and Brian is as fascinating, and painful, as ever. All in all, it was an unbelievable experience -- especially now that I'd forgotten most of the plot twists and turns -- retracing the further lives of Mrs. Madrigal and the others, and then catching up with those missing years via Michael Tolliver Lives, not told in the third person, as the earlier books were, but told by Michael himself. (It's also startling, with Michael and Brian having emerged as the story's central characters, to revisit them with awareness of the American Queer as Folk and its central characters, curiously named Michael and Brian.)

Of course, for a long time the Tales tales have also been crucially concerned with the other end of living, and it's inevitable for Michael in his 50s -- and Brian already in his 60s -- that this end of the life spectrum now colors everything. As Michael points out, having against all his expectations survived his HIV status, he now finds himself overtaken by all the "normal" ways we work our way toward the end.

In a way it was an odd stroke of fate for me -- a lucky one, I think -- that i didn't discover Michael Tolliver Lives, one of whose central plot lines is the final decline of Michael's mother in distant Florida, until after my mother's protracted decline and passing . . . in distant Florida. Many of the specific issues are different, but a lot of the fundamental ones are eerily familiar. This may be yet another way in which these stories simply don't speak to readers younger than the Tales generation that more or less grew up with them. I really have no way of judging that. But I think it's too bad, and wrong. I do hope people who haven't given the Tales a shot yet will do themselves the favor of doing so.

[Note: I can't tell you anything more than I have about Mary Ann in Autumn, because just as I did when I found out about Michael Tolliver Lives, I've determinedly avoided reading anything more about it until I'd read it, so as to avoid spoiling surprises. For the same reason, for the benefit of those who may yet discover the Tales tales, I've chosen a deliberate vagueness with regard to plot details to lessen the incidence of spoilers.]

POSTSCRIPT: I don't think I mentioned that the Tales books are also really, really funny, in case you didn't know.

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At 5:26 AM, Anonymous Mark Scarbrough said...

I missed the Tales when they were first being published and only found them when they were in their two, big, multi-novel volumes, the ones you mentioned. I read these in 1995, just as I was coming out, late, after a hideous divorce from a big corporate CEO, at the age of 35. I can honestly say they were a central part of my coming out--but a sad part. It was like walking into a room AFTER a party, left with only the haunting sense of all I'd missed. I've never seen the PBS movies--because I can't. Those books are burned in my mind. I know what the characters look like, live like. I don't want to get a visual from the movies in my head. I want my own visuals. They were part of my late-phase growing up, learning to live in what Henry James calls the "mild, firm sadness."

At 3:20 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for sharing that, Mark. When you're ready, you really ought to take a look at the three Tales miniseries -- they really are quite lovely. I would just add the small correction that only the first was done by PBS, which promptly turned gutless. It wasn't till Showtime was able to reassemble the package that More Tales and Further Tales were made.

I think of the 28 Barbary Lane gang as my "logical family," as Mrs. Madrigal puts it -- more real to me over this 30-year span than just about any of my real relations.

Thanks for commenting --

At 12:46 AM, Blogger Flora Bunda said...

Am I dense? Did I miss something. Just finished the first book, Tales of the City, and I don't understand Anna's secret. Who hired Williams to find her and what did he find out. That she'd spent time in Denmark made me wonder if she'd had a sex change operation. Can someone clue me in?


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