I first read the original Tales of the City in the fall of 1995, when a friend loaned me her copy and I blew through it in two days. I quickly purchased the next one, and over the next few weeks, as I finished each, I picked up #3 and #4 as well. By the end of Babycakes I was distracted by other reading and left off.
Four years later, I caught a segment of the PBS miniseries on Showtime and decided that not only did I want to re-read the first book, but that it was finally time to fill the lacunae in that area of my bookshelves. (Of course, that also committed me to reading the entire six-volume series.) I checked out Amazon.com for the three books I needed. I was pleased to note that despite being listed as reprint editions, they continued to display the Karen Barbour cover artwork of the 1994 HarperPerennial first edition trade paperbacks I already owned.
I ordered the books, erroneously assuming that they would fit seamlessly into my collection. Unfortunately, the ca. 1998 printings I received have a redesigned spine that is significantly different in appearance. Also, the new covers are more matte in finish than the slick glossy covers I find more aesthetically pleasing. And it doesn’t help that the new ones don’t belong together, so on the shelf I have one black spine, three coloured spines, and two black spines, rather than a nice continuum of six books, or even three and three. It just irks me to see them on the shelf like that, but now they’re paid for and read and only a rant about it will make it better, but not all right.
Maybe it’s just that I still haven’t gotten over the change Little, Brown & co. made in the cover of the paperback Catcher in the Rye several years ago. To me, that dingy white cover with the jaunty, randomly hued stripes in the corner doesn’t suit the book at all. I even cringe when I espy a copy on the shelves of stores. I think the older Bantam printings (beginning 1964; my copy is from 1981) have a much more appropriate cover. It is brick red with simple, serif, capitalized goldenrod letters. There is no other ornamentation except the obligatory publisher info along the spine, and in the case of later printings, the UPC on the back. Somehow the slim, mass market paperback seems evocative of an Everyman’s version of a thick, hardcover tome, bound in red leather and embossed with gold leaf print, that might sit on the shelf of some staid and stately library. In my opinion the sober, classy cover is a fitting irony considering the subversive content of the book. After all, when I read it in high school it was the first time I had seen the “F” word used in a work of literature. (Hmm… and this book was used to illustrate the concept of irony by my high school English teacher.)
But I’m getting off the point here, and the point is that I don’t understand why publishers can’t have some consistency in their printings, even over the course of a few years. Sure, the jacket copy has changed—the new books now mention that More Tales was made into a Showtime miniseries in 1998—but that’s no reason to change the look of the spine. First, poor copy editing has made many books a pain to read, and now the books don’t even “read” well when sitting on the shelf.
One last comment and I’ll get on with it. In December I bought the Rolling Stones album Aftermath because “I Am Waiting” doesn’t appear on the otherwise excellent and mostly complete soundtrack to the film Rushmore. It had been about eight years since my last Stones purchase, back when I was in my deepest throes of psychedelia obsession and Larry Allen clued me in on the wonderful if drugged-out Their Satanic Majesties Request. Yet even after all this time the spine of this new disc is exactly like that of TSMR, and Let It Bleed and Beggar’s Banquet, and probably every Stones disc—black background, white and red lettering. ABKCO does it right. [Note that I cannot vouch for the new remastered versions available via the above links.]
There are a lot of spoilers coming, so if you haven’t read any Maupin yet, take my advice now and at least read the first two books before you continue this review.
The series revolves around the lives of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane, a fictitious and funky boarding house located on San Francisco’s Russian Hill. The house is run by Mrs. Madrigal, a middle-aged, free-thinking (but sensible) matron with a marijuana garden and a mysterious past. The first two books, Tales and More Tales, are really the essentials of the series. Actually, only the first book seems pure to me. It’s the most freewheeling of the set, allowing itself to be solely character-driven without concern for steady plot development. It’s a collection of snapshots of a period of San Francisco history, and like any historical era ’70s San Francisco had no reason, no over-arching theme, and had no idea where it was going. The times themselves, and the people moving through them, are what are important here. The fact that the books originally appeared as newspaper serials only reinforces the “take it as it comes” nature of the Tales.
Thank goodness for PBS, which produced a 6-part miniseries in 1993 under its American Playhouse aegis. PBS had the guts to transfer Tales to the screen whole hog—nudity, profanity, casual drug use and all—and took a hell of a lot of flak for doing so. The miniseries is so true to the book that most of the dialogue is taken verbatim, and it’s a testament to Maupin’s ability at writing dialogue that the words sound exactly right when spoken by actors. The casting of the miniseries, too, was splendid: in particular Olympia Dukakis, Donald Moffat, Laura Linney, Chloe Webb, and Thomas Gibson are all so perfect in their roles that I picture them as I reread the book, and I find myself hearing the lines in the voices of the actors.
Five years later, after the vitriol of the closed-minded made PBS wary of producing the sequel, Showtime picked up the ball and ran with it. Though most of the cast remains the same, some replacements were made, one a disappointment, another less so. Nina Siemaszko doesn’t embody Mona to me, but maybe it’s just the hots I have for Chloe Webb. I liked Marcus D’Amico better as Michael, but at least Paul Hopkins wears the mustache described in the book.
Showtime’s production is, of course, of the second book, More Tales of the City. More Tales picks up right where Tales left off and carries as its standard the goal of filling in the mysteries posed in the first book. Mrs. Madrigal’s storied past is finally fleshed out, and her unique relationship to Mona is explained. Meanwhile, Maupin’s talent for densely nested coincidences becomes increasingly prominent. Somehow he manages to fit the most preposterous events together without straining the vaguely whimsical credibility of the story. Michael’s lost love is the doctor aboard the cruise ship he and Mary Ann take to Acapulco? Brian’s beautiful stranger in the distant high-rise is Mona’s mother? The madam who ran the brothel where Mrs. Madrigal grew up is sitting next to Mona on the bus to Winnamucca—and she’s Mona’s grandmother? Sure, that makes perfect sense.
In large part it is these coincidences that make the books such a joy to read, as the little contrivances all fit together into a ludicrously funny and entertaining whole. Aside from a subplot involving Mary Ann’s search for the missing past of an amnesiac lover, More Tales tramps wonderfully onward in almost random fashion.
The third book, Further Tales of the City, begins to take things a bit too far. The main storyline revolves around socialite DeDe Halcyon Day, who manages to escape with her two children and lesbian lover from Guyana and the clutches of Jim Jones just days before the Jonestown massacre. Some time later, a mysterious but kindly stranger appears in San Francisco, and turns out to be Jones himself. Through the most spurious set of coincidences yet, he winds up aboard the same Alaskan cruise ship as DeDe and the kids and kidnaps the children—or does he really?
Further Tales spends too much time trying to meander around a fairly meager plot, while we see very little of Mrs. Madrigal, whose oracular wisdom tends to keep the main characters on an even keel. Mona has left for Seattle and appears not at all. Somewhere in there, Brian and Mary Ann get married. Further is an only moderately enjoyable conclusion to the original trilogy of Tales. (Showtime produced the third mini-series in 2001.)
The second trilogy, beginning with Babycakes, was written after a hiatus of several years, and the tone of these books shows the change of era. The books carry with them the weight of history. The first three books take place in the mid- to late-’70s, when drug use and casual sex were epidemic in San Francisco. The second three take place in the ’80s, when a completely different epidemic was rampaging: AIDS had already decimated much of the gay community and was beginning to take its toll on the heterosexually promiscuous as well. While President Reagan was trying to keep C. Everett Koop muzzled, San Franciscans were living with the fear of the virus on a daily basis. According to the back cover copy, Armistead Maupin’s Babycakes was the first literature that dealt head-on with AIDS. It’s an eye-opener for someone like myself, who had no idea of even the existence of AIDS until around 1985, when Dr. Koop was able to get the mainstream media (in my case USA Today) to pay attention.
Even with the heavy background, Babycakes still manages to have a lot of fun, even though many of the characters were beginning to get on my nerves. Brian mopes about not being a father, unaware of his low sperm count, while Mary Ann has a fling with a British Naval officer (who looks vaguely like Brian) in the vain hope that she might get pregnant with no one the wiser. We learn that the lieutenant has some dormant dwarf genes that stand a good chance of surfacing in any children he might have, but before we can worry for very long we find out he’s had his tubes tied so it won’t be a problem. Meanwhile, Michael is in London and spots, unbelievably, the resurfaced (and re-tressed) Mona. She’s there to marry a titled (and flamboyantly gay) lord so that he may come to San Francisco to pursue his interests in a welcoming environment. She decides to stay in England to maintain his estate as Lady Roughton, conveniently putting Mona out of the way for pretty much the rest of the series.
This would have been a disappointment to me, since I liked Mona in the early books, but by the time she reappeared in Babycakes, after her total absence from Further Tales, I felt like I didn’t really know her any more. I didn’t regret her remaining in England, because I had already gotten over her after the end of More Tales.
Then comes Significant Others, the most enjoyable romp since More Tales. The coincidences come fast and furious, but are reasonable since they mostly take place within a small physical radius and so chance meetings are not overly contrived. A female-only festival called Wimminwood—no explanation of its politics necessary—takes place just down river from the all-male Bohemian Grove, an annual get-together for the cream of San Francisco society. Maupin is caustically wry while sticking it to the vegan & hairy-armpit mentality of Wimminwood… and by extension, he does a great job of cutting down feminazis (and anyone else who carries ’60s notions into the ’80s and beyond with unyielding fervor.) The man-hating “wimmin” left me rooting for Booter, an old-school Republican with connections to George Bush, when he stumbles unwittingly upon a painted-flesh gathering of naked dykes.
Brian, Michael, and a tourist friend of Michael’s named Thack are in the neighbourhood, staying at a cabin of a friend. Also nearby is Wren Douglas, a model known as “the world’s most beautiful fat woman.” From Maupin’s description I don’t doubt her incredible allure, yet Brian, in the depths of despair as he frets over the pending results of his AIDS test (an old lover is dying), is depressingly impervious to Wren’s advances.
The whole series wraps up with Sure Of You, a book that in a lot of ways brings the dissolution of the original book—and by extension, its lifestyle—to completion. Mary Ann, pursuing her career as a media celebrity, has by this time crafted such a persona for herself that she no longer has a real personality beneath it. Everything she says, and all her actions, even toward her oldest friends, are calculated to fit the persona. Not that she ever had much of a personality to begin with—from her introduction on page one of Tales she has mainly been a foil for the antics of those around her, an uptight straight to provide the necessary embarrassment and/or Middle American outrage. It wasn’t until she found a career, and a backstabbing, cutthroat one at that, that her tendency toward self-serving bitchiness came into the fore.
So she leaves Brian, and their adopted daughter Shawna, and heads to New York. Fine, I say. Brian was always more suited to fatherhood than married life, and Mary Ann never got past the fact that Shawna looked an awful lot like her birth mother, an old high school chum of Mary Ann’s with whom Brian had slept way back in book one.
Meanwhile, Michael has been HIV-positive since before Significant Others. The moral outrage of his lover, Thack, finally begins to rub off and Michael is able to put his nice-guy tendencies aside and properly vent his anger.
Mrs. Madrigal heads off to Greece with Mona (the Lady Roughton), where they both engage in vacation flings. Anna’s is serious enough that she has great (though unseen) difficulty returning to San Francisco, but return she does, because 28 Barbary Lane could not exist without her. If it indeed does exist by the end of the series, as the quiet lane has begun to be built up with overbearing condominiums and none of the original tenants—Anna’s “family”—still reside in the old house. Brian gets back in shape and rekindles his love life, Michael and Thack make the most of life under the looming spectre of AIDS, and Anna as always cooks them all a nice dinner complete with the obligatory plate of joints alongside the hors d’oeuvres. The book ends with the same sort of open-ended happily-ever-after as each book in the series, though in this case it’s pretty obvious that the series has run its course and we won’t—and need not—be subjected to the Barbary Lane of the ’90s.
Maupin spent several years writing this series, and while much of it is truly inspired, he occasionally lapses into periods where he’s merely going through the motions, letting his “little universe run” as one blurb writer put it. Because of this, I would hesitate to call the series, as a whole, a masterpiece. Nor necessarily essential reading. However, Tales of the City, and to a lesser extent More Tales of the City, is one of the finest and most enjoyable pieces of contemporary literature I have ever read.