Wednesday, November 3, 2010

'Mary Ann in Autumn,' by Armistead Maupin

October 31, 2010
By Jane Juska
Special to The Chronicle

Mary Ann in Autumn

A Tales of the City Novel

By Armistead Maupin

(Harper; 287 pages; $25.99)

The Castro in 2010 isn't nearly as much fun as Russian Hill in 1978, and Collingwood Street cannot compare with Macondray Lane. To make matters worse, Anna Madrigal in Armistead Maupin's new book, "Mary Ann in Autumn," is old - when we first meet her she is lying on the kitchen floor having what she calls a little snooze - and Mary Ann Singleton is 57. Lord, what would Laura Linney think of that?

I'm not as much fun now either as I was in 1978, when I read the serialization of "Tales of the City" in The Chronicle. Gay sex, gay drama, gay tragedy and gay fun - funnier than straight fun - made each excerpt a must-read. With each one I felt smarter, more sophisticated and a whole lot wittier. Here were people I would never meet who welcomed me into a world I would never know but who suffered and laughed and worried and enjoyed life just like the rest of us, or like the rest of us were trying to do, not so easy with all those straight people interfering.

With the exception of Anna Madrigal, everybody back then was becoming; in "Mary Ann in Autumn," almost everybody is. Is is never as much fun as becoming. Take it from one who is closer in age to Mrs. Madrigal than to Mary Ann, although so far I do not nap on the kitchen floor.

So what does Maupin offer us to blunt the pain of aging, in its own way a sort of becoming? In addition to Facebook, he offers us the kind and gentle Michael Tolliver, Mary Ann's best friend both then and now, whose advice and sympathy she has come to seek as a wounded wife buried for too long in Connecticut. Michael, too, has been wounded by time and life: the death from AIDS of many friends, a shrinking economy, the changes in his almost-60 body. He cannot help but worry about the age difference - 28 years - between him and his husband of three months, and clings to the possibility of building a cabin in the Sierra on a bit of land he'd bought in better times.

Amid all this he is a loyal and steadfast friend to Mary Ann when she reveals her decision to leave her husband. It seems that Bob Straightallover (not his real name) has gotten himself caught on Skype being serviced by Mary Ann's life coach - in Venice. Back in Darien, Mary Ann watched the whole thing and then packed. She needs a friend to listen to her marital woes, and she needs a friend to help her through her recently diagnosed cancer.

Right here in San Francisco, through thick and through thin, is Michael. And just down the Peninsula is her old friend, DeDe, who speaks of herself as "a pushy old lesbian," in Chanel, no less. And here are Anna and ultimately Ben and just possibly Shawna, the adopted daughter Mary Ann left behind when she defected to Darien. She is surrounded by love and hope; she simply must recover.

Kind of soapy, huh. But good soap, 99 44/100 percent pure. Whip it up with Michael's new husband, Ben, young and a roamer; add Jake, a transgender in the making - talk about becoming! - and a Mormon missionary named Jonah Flake, and you've got a concoction that is irresistible. Whoops, let's not forget the lesbians; sometimes only a woman will do.

The year 2010 has been a grim one for many people inside books and out, no matter their gender or their sexual orientation. Just how grim shows up in the character of Leia, a woman Shawna finds in an alley in the Tenderloin, earning the only way she knows how the money she needs for heroin. Leia is not only a victim of the drug but also of necrotizing fasciitis, "the flesh-eating disease."

Leia turns out to be linked to the other people in the book - mystery eventually solved - but she is of more interest to the reader as a real human being rotting on the streets of San Francisco. Maupin's creation of her is fine; we feel queasy at the sight of her filthy self waving down cars on South Van Ness for a handout, and hopeful that medical help will come in time. We feel angry and helpless and frustrated. Goes with 2010.

But this is not a book that calls us to action. This is a book about middle-aged people struggling with the autumn of their lives and about young people struggling with the spring of theirs. At different points in the novel, they all become aware that they need each other - "the genderless neutrality of the human heart" - to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and to have a good bit of fun along the way. After all, they live in San Francisco, where you can go to Pier 39 and watch all those seals.

Nota bene: There are two dogs in this book and a clown. No cats, though.

Jane Juska of Berkeley is the author of "A Round-Heeled Woman" and "Unaccompanied Women." E-mail

(C) San Francisco Chronicle 2010


  1. ah HA, there is SO a cat...Mrs Madrigal's!
    I always end Maupin's books stuck between delighted giggles at the wit and tears in my eyes from the beauty of the people and their lives. PLEASe, don't be finished with the Barbary Lane crew yet!!!!

  2. "With the exception of Anna Madrigal, everybody back then was becoming; in 'Mary Ann in Autumn,' almost everybody is. Is is never as much fun as becoming."

    The way Ms. Juska tells it at a certain age everyone is just waiting to die. The characters in "Mary Ann in Autumn" are on the same journey they were thirty years ago and just as much becoming. Aged and ageless as we all are.

  3. I'm half way through the book and loving every moment. It takes me back to a world I wish I had inhabited and not only watched from the sidelines. The writing is impeccable - never a wasted or unnecessary word. Thank you, Mr Maupin for giving us so much joy over the years.