I can’t remember the first time I read Tales of The City, the first novel in Armistead Maupin’s engaging series of novels set in San Francisco. The novel, which originated as a newspaper serial, was first published in 1978, but I think I didn’t discover the series until sometime in the mid-1980s.
Like most readers of that novel, I was smitten with the not-so-conventional cast of characters and their many not-so-conventional adventures, and was eager to read more. I soon rounded up the other books in the “Tales of the City” series that were out and devoured those quickly. I enjoyed Maupin’s description of life in San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s, a city that ranks as one of America’s most unique and beautiful places. But after six books, the series stopped with Sure of You in 1989.
After nearly two decades of silence, the series was resurrected in 2007 with Michael Tolliver Lives, followed by yet another installment, Mary Ann in Autumn, in 2010. Both novels were fun reads, but ultimately failed to capture the magic of the early books in the series. I just finished reading Maupin’s latest book, The Days of Anna Madrigal, which is apparently the end of the line for the beloved series. The Days of Anna Madrigal is sure to please most fans of the “Tales of the City” series. The title character, Mrs. Madrigal, is now 92 years old, but still sharp as a tack, and still surrounded by a loveable if slightly eccentric cast of characters.
Not surprisingly, if you know the background of Mrs. Madrigal, the book focuses on transgender issues, not to mention the not-so-conventional relationships — homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual — of the other characters. Really, there are times when it helps to have a scorecard. There are also times when I felt that Maupin was trying too hard to be too unnecessarily hip or in tune with modern trends. The book is littered with copious references to things like Twitter, reading on a Kindle, watching the “Breaking Bad” TV series, and going to the Burning Man Festival. Ultimately, I think too much of this stuff detracts from the flow and vibe of the story. I’m not going to rehash the plot or offer a synopsis, but suffice to say Maupin throws in a few surprises to balance out the congenial familiarity of these characters and their relationships. All in all, a satisfying addition to the series.
Reading Maupin’s latest book brought back my own memories of San Francisco, a city that I’ve visited four times. Of course my memories are a bit different than those of the Tales of the City cast; watching baseball games at the old Candlestick Park, shopping for books at City Lights, buying records wholesale for my shop at the Rough Trade branch, visiting the mysterious Ralph Records (home of The Residents) office, and walking around the Mission District. I also saw a few great concerts, usually doubling up on shows in the same night. One time I started off by going to an amazing NRBQ show (and talked to Todd Rundgren, who was also in the audience) and finished the night off with a hot set by Chris Isaak and his band in another small club. Another time, during my first trip to the city in 1982, I attended a Depeche Mode concert, probably the first “rock” show I ever saw that didn’t feature a drummer. Later that same night I walked a few blocks and witnessed a wild performance by The Cramps. The opening act was the Method Actors, a band from Athens, Georgia in which my friend Mike Richmond (also a member of Love Tractor) played.
At this point in my life I doubt that I’ll ever return to the US, much less see San Francisco again, but I can pay a vicarious visit anytime I want by reading Maupin’s novels.