All I can say about how I missed Tales of the City in the 1970s is that I was living in the South at the time and trying to get out. So little filtered down there—even reading Bruce Chatwin was extremely cutting edge for Florida. I would have been a solid groupie of Armistead Maupin’s book then, though, because that’s who I wanted to be—adrift and aloft in the bubble of San Francisco, up to my neck in free classes at Berkeley, discovering the world outside my sheltered niche and trying everything. I wouldn’t have lasted a week.
Maupin’s characters fare somewhat better. They mess up their messy lives chapter by chapter but they—most of them—manage to survive and evolve, inch by painful inch. And they are witty. My favorite thing about this book is the dialogue. I would be supremely happy to deliver sharp, funny repartee like Maupin’s that rattles the page like an automatic weapon. It’s part of what keeps Tales moving, although it’s part of what keeps Tales the tiniest bit tough to follow as well.
The chat is so smart and whip-like funny that I concluded it was Maupin’s own voice. Characters I wouldn’t have credited with that much wit have it in spades—more credit to them but not enough differentiation for each to have a singular voice. Every time I picked up the book again I had to rethread the needle with Mona, Connie, Candi, Michael, Mouse, Brian, Beauchamp (well, maybe not Beauchamp), Mary Ann, Prue, Oona, et al. Moral of story: read it straight through.
The book is a compilation of a newspaper series of tales, Dickensian in serialization if not in content. It deals with Mary Ann Singleton from Cleveland who escapes to San Francisco on vacation and never goes home. She ends up renting an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane, in a funky house on Russian Hill populated by a clutch of tenants from central casting.
Anna Madrigal runs the house and delivers a welcome note taped to a joint to new tenants. She has a deep dark secret that isn’t revealed in this first book in the series but it’s possible to guess at it and come fairly close. I found her the most interesting, humane and delightful character but Edgar Halcyon, wealthy businessman with caricatured society wife is very very good, too. Michael “Mouse” Tolliver lacks a truckload of self-confidence but is an extremely attentive listener and a considerate, if unemployed, roommate. A few marquee names like Liz Taylor get anonymous but unmistakable cameos.
The gay scene in San Francisco, before AIDS decimated a population and leached all the joy out of uninhibited shacking up and swanning around, is well-chronicled. The in-love-out-of-love sagas are believable, if a little exhausting finally. It’s hard work to be free-spirited, pharmaceutically-enhanced and constantly on the prowl. And Maupin’s world is a small one—these people are all connected and woven in and around each other’s lives in improbable but deliciously compelling ways.
Tales of the City spawned equally popular sequels, a musical, a TV series and a few more iterations. It was fun and a little nostalgic to read. People had so much hope then, such options for reinvention. It was a real era captured by an entertaining writer, an evanescent time that seems more like a novel someone dreamed up now that it’s gone.
Tales of the City: A Novel (P.S.) Armistead Maupin Harper Perennial 1994