For those who have invested years reading and rereading Armistead Maupin’s six-book Tales of the City series, the latest entry couldn’t have a happier title: Michael Tolliver Lives.
A lot has changed for Michael (Mouse) Tolliver, the series’ lovable gay Everyman (and possible fictional stand-in for the author) since he was last heard from, way back in 1989. He finds himself somewhat astonished to be alive and kicking after being HIV-positive for two decades.
Like Maupin, he’s blissfully married to a much younger man, the sweet Ben McCall, and he continues to adore his adopted city of San Francisco. And mirroring the lives of many baby boomers, Tolliver is dealing with aging parents—specifically, his “biological” mother, dying in an Orlando nursing home, and his “logical” mother, the indomitable Anna Madrigal, 85 years young and as feisty as ever.
The entertaining but occasionally uneven Michael Tolliver Lives underscores what I’ve always imagined about Maupin: that he’s one of those rare people you find yourself fortunate to be seated next to at a long, tedious dinner.
Sly, humane and possessing canny observation skills, Maupin can still blow a pop-culture bubble with the best of them, effortlessly nailing a dizzying kaleidoscope of subjects: his beloved San Francisco (and its “magnificent obsessions, sex and social justice”), the literal dirtiness of a peep show (“I had already entertained a graphic fantasy about attacking that Plexiglas with a family-sized spray bottle of Simple Green”), how Next-Gen gays are clueless about their predecessors’ cultural references (“Who’s Sally Bowles?” asked Ben. I turned and looked at my younger, less theatrical half. “She used to be married to Ansel Adams.”) and the irony of living with HIV since the late `80s (“Here’s the kicker: the longer you survive the virus the closer you get to dying the regular way.”).
Maupin continues to breezily weave current events—Terri Schiavo, gay marriage, Internet dating—into the interconnected series of vignettes that just barely constitutes a novel, and while Michael Tolliver Lives doesn’t hang on the mystery-suspense frameworks of old (double identities, cannibalistic cults in Grace Cathedral and the return of the Rev. Jim Jones were some of Maupin’s earlier doozies), the book’s plotlines, lean as they are, manage a few page-turning surprises.
Maupin pledges that Michael Tolliver Lives is his final word on Tales, although that’s what he said about the former “last” title, the bittersweet Sure of You. That promise might explain why he dares to take a few steps away from familiar territory.
For starters, Michael Tolliver Lives is much more sexually frank than its predecessors, which started life in the mid-1970s as a fanatically followed serial in the San Francisco Chronicle (and later morphed into an acclaimed public-television miniseries). This time around, Maupin places the narrative inside Tolliver’s head, a switch that occasionally discombobulated this change-averse Tales fan.
Readers intimately familiar with residents of Madrigal’s apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane—an address as famous to Tales-ians as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is to politicos—might become restless with the frequent refresher courses, however brief, that Maupin inserts to acquaint first-timers with the series’ lengthy and colorful patchwork of characters.
Most of them get at least a brief curtain call, and it’s a thoughtful touch, particularly one welcome appearance at the book’s conclusion that made this reader cry. Thanks, Mr. Maupin, for revisiting the 28 Barbary Lane family. And does this really have to be the last?