Sunday, June 24, 2007

NY Times Book Review

NY Times Book Review

June 24, 2007

Still More Tales of the City



By Armistead Maupin.

277 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $25.95.

Armistead Maupin's enormously popular "Tales of the City" series, published between 1978 and 1989, told the story of a disparate group of San Franciscans brought together under the roof of Anna Madrigal, a transsexual lady of a certain age who ran a boarding house on a street called Barbary Lane while growing marijuana on the side. Reviving a 19th-century tradition, Maupin wrote the Tales in the form of a serial, with installments appearing daily in The San Francisco Chronicle. After "Sure of You" came out in 1989, Maupin declared that the series was finished, and went on to write two other novels. He changed his mind, however, and now he brings us "Michael Tolliver Lives," a sort of coda to the Tales, in which he catches us up on the many characters who populate the earlier books — and in particular on Mike Tolliver himself.

As the first chapter opens, it is 2006, and Mike, at 55, is surprised to be alive. Twenty years ago he was certain that he would die of AIDS; now, much to his own bewilderment, he's thriving, thanks to "a fine-tuned mélange of Viramune and Combivir." Life is good for Mike: he owns his own house, runs a successful business as a gardener and landscape architect, and was recently married to Ben, who is handsome, charming and 21 years his junior.

And yet, let's not forget that we're in Armistead Maupin's San Francisco. Thus Mike's burly assistant, a self-proclaimed "bear cub" named Jake Greenleaf, turns out to be a female-to-male transsexual with whom Mike once had a gender-bending one-night stand. Mike found Ben, on the Internet, on a site devoted to older men and their admirers, on which Ben identified himself as CLEANCUTLAD4U. And their wedding was part of the communal ceremony that took place at San Francisco City Hall after the city declared marriage between same-sex couples legal, with Mayor Gavin Newsom presiding, "so young and handsome and ... neat ... that he actually looked like the man on top of a wedding cake."

As for Anna Madrigal — the doyenne of Barbary Lane, played so memorably by Olympia Dukakis in the PBS adaptation of the series — she's now 85, and has moved from her boarding house to a small apartment where she watches lovingly over the three young "trannies" upstairs. Along with Mike, she's trying to keep an eye on Shawna, the daughter of Mike's straight best friend, Brian. Shawna has grown up into a sort of Outward Bound explorer of the erotic wilderness, whose adventurings — recounted on a widely read blog — include a stint working at "the Lusty Lady, a peep show in North Beach that recently became the nation's first worker-owned strip club." Even the domestic bliss that Mike shares with Ben is distinctly San Franciscan in flavor, with Ben casually giving his older husband testosterone injections and the couple negotiating just how open they want their marriage to be. ("You're too young to be monogamous," Mike tells Ben. "And I'm too old.")

Such, though, is life in the city that Mike's Orlando-based relatives call "Sodom by the Bay" — a life whose audaciously self-conscious particularity Mike finds alternately delightful and exasperating. Reflecting on a restaurant menu's description of ingredients as "artisanal" rather than "homemade," he observes: "Sometimes Northern California just wears me ... down, and I get fed up with our precious patois, our fetishizing of almost everything." It's as if, for Maupin as much as for Mike, a certain malaise has settled in; as if "the City" they love so well, with its population of latex fetishists, foot worshipers and people who like to have sex in clown costumes, has started to seem even to them a little too, well, cute.

Like its predecessors, Michael Tolliver Lives" is a novel only in the loosest sense of the term. The chapters are independent yet interdependent, flowing into one another gracefully while remaining very much singular entities. If there's a plot, it's a casually constructed one, culminating in the simultaneous collapses of two very different women: Mike's "biological" mother, dying in a nursing home in Florida, and his "logical" mother, Anna, hospitalized in San Francisco after a heart attack. The choice of which bedside to run to — of which mother is the real mother — provides some dramatic tension, if only in the final pages.

The most interesting part of "Michael Tolliver Lives" is probably the sequence of chapters that takes Mike and Ben to visit Mike's family in Orlando. It's here that Maupin catches his stride as a writer, displaying in great furls of prose both his instinct for comedy and his linguistic verve. He gets Central Florida spot-on: the McMansion in which Mike's sister-in-law, Lenore, enlists his

proto-gay great-nephew, Sumter, in constructing puppets for her Christian puppet theater; the Gospel Palms nursing home, in which Mike's dying mother strikes up a friendship with her black hairdresser (with whom Mike and Ben later have a three-way); the gay B&B owned by "a pair of retired Italian queens from Queens" who each night leave an orchid floating in the toilet bowl.

All this is rendered with balance, good humor and compassion. And indeed, if I have a complaint about "Michael Tolliver Lives," it may be that for all the pleasure it takes in its own transgressiveness, it comes off as a little too nice. For example, what in the '70s we called "four-letter words" pepper the novel, yet they're almost always used as terms of endearment. No conflict lasts for more than a few sentences, every flare-up is becalmed by sweetness, and though all the characters are interesting, none are difficult. I once heard the British actress Mollie Sugden observe in an interview that there could be no comedy without threat. Yet for all Maupin's ponderous references to George W. Bush, Enron, Abu Ghraib and AIDS, threat is oddly remote from the landscape of "Michael Tolliver Lives." On the contrary, the characters live in a landscape more distinctive for its buffered gentleness than its dangers.

Despite this, the book is great fun to read. Maupin is a master at sustained and sustaining comic turns. Of these, my favorite is probably the story of Carlotta. Carlotta, to be precise, is the name Mike and Ben have given to the voice in which their Toyota Prius's navigation system gives them directions: "female, elegant and a little bossy." On a trip through the Southwest, Ben, noticing a chill in the air, tells Carlotta, "Seventy-two degrees." She answers that "there is no fifth destination." Realizing Carlotta must have misunderstood him, Ben asks: "If that's the answer, what's the question?"

Unfortunately, like so much else in this novel, Maupin domesticates this moment of spectral strangeness, much as the city he loves and loathes domesticates the perverseness in which it also takes such pride. "From that moment on," Mike tells us, " 'There is no fifth destination' became our all-purpose pronouncement. ... It became our way of saying 'big deal' or 'who the hell knows?' or 'lighten up, for God's sake, you won't get out of this alive.' "

All very nice. And yet I couldn't help wondering: What would Nabokov have done with Carlotta?

David Leavitt's novel "The Indian Clerk" will be published this fall.

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