By JOSEPH SALVATORE
Published: November 12, 2010
In 1974, Armistead Maupin, then a young journalist, covered a story on a Safeway supermarket in San Francisco that had become a popular pickup spot. Local customers, gay and straight, were not, as it turns out, shopping only for wheat bread and alfalfa sprouts, nor were they willing to talk to a reporter. Undaunted, Maupin created his own spokeswoman: a fictional young Midwesterner named Mary Ann Singleton.
So taken with her was he that he began publishing short stories about Mary Ann and her friends, which in 1976 were serialized in The San Francisco Chronicle. That serial would go on to become a best-selling, internationally beloved multivolume opus — one that begins when the naïve Mary Ann arrives in San Francisco for what she thinks will be a short visit, falls in love with the city and decides to stay. She takes a room in a boarding house at 28 Barbary Lane, which is run by the droll and dignified Anna Madrigal, whose warmth and good will create among her tenants a sense of family. One of those tenants is Michael Tolliver, a young gay man who becomes Mary Ann’s closest friend and one of the series’s central characters.
In 1978, the series was published as a novel, “Tales of the City,” and was embraced by readers for its frank and funny depictions of contemporary San Francisco. Several more “Tales” followed, ending (or so Maupin claimed) in 1989, with the sixth installment, “Sure of You,” in which Michael is dealing with his own H.I.V. diagnosis and Mary Ann, hoping to trade in her big-fish, small-pond life as a local television host (“Her face was on the side of buses”) for larger celebrity on the national stage, takes a job in New York, deserting her husband and daughter, deserting San Francisco, and deserting Michael.
But if Maupin was done with “Tales,” it wasn’t done with him. In 2007, he came out with “Michael Tolliver Lives,” which he insisted was not a new installment but rather an “intimate and simple novel of daily life in the Castro.” Soon, however, Maupin recanted, admitting not only that the book was the next “Tales” installment, but that he had yet another still in mind. Et voilà: the tenderhearted and frolicsome “Mary Ann in Autumn.”
It is the late fall of 2008, and Mary Ann has returned to San Francisco after an absence of 20 years. Much has changed. Anna Madrigal’s once diversely populated and lively apartment house on Barbary Lane has been bought by new owners and renovated into a single-family dwelling, and every trace of Mary Ann’s bohemian life seems to have been erased. The once creaky but always welcoming gate now has a lock and buzzer, and a security camera has been installed under an eave, preventing Mary Ann from snooping around even for nostalgia’s sake.
“It all goes so fast,” Mary Ann thinks. “We dole out our lives in dinner parties and plane flights, and it’s over before we know it. We lose everyone we love, if they don’t lose us first, and every single thing we do is intended to distract us from that reality.”
This sense of the ephemeral engulfs Mary Ann, who at 57 has, as the title suggests, entered the autumn of her life — a life that has been recently and abruptly rocked by two devastating crises. Having nowhere else to turn, she reaches out to Michael Tolliver, the friend she once abandoned. But in returning she’ll also have to face her estranged daughter, Shawna; her old friends DeDe and D’orothea; the young transgender gardener Jake Greenleaf; Anna Madrigal, now in her 80s; and Michael’s young and spirited husband, Ben — all of whom have reasons to mistrust her motives for coming back. Longtime readers may wonder if, in Maupin’s Californian cosmology, Mary Ann isn’t having some serious karma visited upon her, what Shawna calls “bad juju.”
To say more about Mary Ann’s predicament would be to reveal the many secrets and surprises that drive the novel’s elaborate plot, which involves Facebook and old photos, dogs and blogs, pedophilia and drug addiction, and some restless ghosts from Mary Ann’s past. It is precisely the elaborate plotting, however, that is the novel’s weakest part. For underneath all the rigging and staging, all the convenient coincidences and improbable encounters, Maupin has built Mary Ann a solid narrative, has given her not only a story, but an entire life.
Mary Ann’s is a tale of long-lost friends and unrealized dreams, of fear and regret, of penance and redemption — and of the unshakable sense that this world we love, this life we live, this drama in which we all play a part, does indeed go by much too fast.
Joseph Salvatore teaches writing and literature at the New School. His story collection, “To Assume a Pleasing Shape,” will be published next year.