It's difficult to believe Armistead Maupin's first Tales of the City book was published 35 years ago. Originally written as a serial series for the San Francisco Chronicle, Maupin's first few books became international bestsellers.
They perfectly captured the hippy, free-love sensibility of San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s. AIDS didn't yet exist. It was a time when anything was possible, particularly for gay men still giddy from the liberation of Stonewall.
Maupin set his opus at 28 Barbary Lane, a Victorian rooming house whose transgender landlady, Anna Madrigal, not only ran the joint but smoked more than a few in her day. She and her tenants — the heartbreaker Brian, the gay country boy Michael, and the "fresh from Cleveland" MaryAnn — all became a kind of family.
Says Maupin in a recent blog, "Consciously or not, I was writing about the mechanics of the new urban extended family, and that's been happening all over the world, this mix of gay and straight and married and unmarried and the way in which we survive today."
The author stopped the series in the mid-'80s after six volumes. In 1993, PBS made the first three Tales into a miniseries, and the books found a new generation of fans. More recently, Maupin published two more books, the first dedicated to Michael's latter years and the second mainly involving MaryAnn's return to San Francisco to lick her wounds after a series of personal tragedies.
In The Days of Anna Madrigal — the ninth and final novel of the series, which will be released Jan. 21 — Maupin shifts the focus back to the irrepressible Madrigal, who is now 92 and wanting to "leave life like a lady." But she's got a few stories left to tell first.
Anna journeys to Winnemucca, the small Nevada town where she grew up in her mother's brothel. Fans of the series will delight in her finally facing the truth about what drove her away, as well as in learning the origin of her surname.
Brian and Michael are the other two characters who figure prominently. Brian, the stud who we remember for bedding half of San Francisco's women, now has liver spots and a penchant to settle down.
Meanwhile, Michael has finally found love with a much younger man and is pondering retirement from his nursery business. His character has grown somewhat whiney over the years, but Maupin still gives him some of the best lines. While begging his boyfriend not to donate his sperm to a mutual friend, Michael says, "I can't help it. I'm old-fashioned. I believe marriage is between a man and a man. And if there's a baby to be taken care of... frankly... I want it to be me."
Storylines converge as everyone ends up at the legendary Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert, or what Michael calls "a Fellini carnival on Mars." Even MaryAnn makes an appearance, albeit a brief and rather unsatisfying one.
Burning Man is an ideal destination for Maupin's counterculture characters to conclude their epic tale, but it's a little sad that the San Francisco that partied through the '70s and '80s has left so many of its interesting characters on the outside looking in.
At their best, Maupin's novels hook the reader into losing track of time; many finish one of his books in a single sitting. This volume occasionally recaptures this former magic. And while Maupin has wisely returned to multi-character plotlines, not all of them are that compelling.
When Brian and his new girlfriend Wren are on the road with Anna, the former landlady compares her life's journey to that of a monarch butterfly. Monarchs migrate like birds, she says, but when the journey proves too long, their children and grandchildren make it for them.
"Somehow they know exactly where to go and specifically how to land... The new generation winters in the same tree every year without having seen the tree," she concludes.
That's an ideal summary of Maupin's utopian cast of characters and of Madrigal's expectations of her "family" once she is gone.
Longtime fans of the series will devour this book, having waited nearly two decades to find out how things turned out for their favourite characters. For the most part, they will be rewarded. New readers would be advised to start with the first Tales, when Maupin's breezy prose was at its best.
Greg Klassen is a Winnipeg publicist, marketer and writer. If he could time-travel, Greg would love to live in San Francisco during the late 1970s.