Beginning to read Armistead Maupin’s new Tales of the City book feels a little like walking into a college reunion that you know will be your last. Except, to be honest, I feel as if I know these characters better than I ever got to know anyone at my old school.
If you’re another one of the millions who’ve loved these books — and if you've read on the dust jacket that The Days of Anna Madrigal, in which the series’ unifying figure, around whom the others have revolved, is 92 now and preparing for the end of her days, will be the final installment — then you know what I mean. If you haven’t yet discovered these stories, you’re lucky! You have the chance to read them for the first time.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve read the core books in Maupin’s now nine-volume series, which began as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid-70s. Very briefly, they recount the adventures of a handful of young people — at the start, they’re young — who in various ways come to be tenants at an unusual rooming house on a leafy side lane in San Francisco. Some tenants are straight, some are gay, and their landlady is Anna Madrigal, who grows pot in her garden and takes a gentle, gracefully bohemian approach to life. She welcomes her tenants as if they were family, and gradually, that’s what they become.
They feel like family to readers, too. I guess it was pretty groundbreaking to portray gay characters, with candor and affection, in an ensemble story produced for general audiences; but what brings me back to these stories, again and again, is simply that they are so filled with humanity. Maupin is gay, and much of the passion and heartbreak in these books centers on his character Michael Tolliver’s movement through the horror and loss of the unfolding AIDS epidemic. We share in the pure humanity of this tragedy, and by the later volumes we also share in the resilience of Michael’s survival.
But there are also Brian and Mary Ann, whose romance comes together and then comes apart; and there’s the search for meaning and connectedness that every character pursues, in his/her own fitful way — and always there is Mrs. Madrigal, whose own story as it unfolds, as Maupin and his readers discover it along the way, is both way out there (trust me on this) and always right here at the heart. And what I notice, personally, is that I tend to read these books — to re-read the original set of six, which came out between 1978 and 1989; the last three have appeared since 2007 — when I’m struggling a lot, or not feeling well. This, to me, says what I want to say about these books. They are healing stories, not (I think) because they were meant to be, but because they come so freshly from the heart.
Maupin was writing his installments shortly before each one was published in the newspaper — and there’s an immediacy to his affection for his characters, and for the San Francisco that is his main setting, that comes through with a vibrant vitality. I’ve read his other novels, Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener, and while they are very good they don’t make quite the same connection. They don’t pull you into a world that you just don’t want to leave.
The Tales books do. And now it appears we have the last. Maupin has said that this new book is the final installment; and though I don’t know yet what will happen, it’s pretty clear that The Days of Anna Madrigal is the curtain call of the landlady from 28 Barbary Lane.
I almost don’t want to start reading it. Once I have, I won't be able to stop; and then there won’t be any more.