Archive for the ‘From the armchair’ category

PrairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon

29 October 2002
Categories: From the armchair

coverI bought this book some eight summers ago—my handwritten imprimatur on the flyleaf reads “July 1994”—fresh on the heels of having avidly devoured Heat-Moon’s first book, Blue Highways. At the time, I had put down roots by purchasing a house in my hometown, a scant mile from the hospital where I was born, and was building up calluses and home repair experience by restoring the lovely old yellow-clapboarded wood-frame dwelling. Yet without really realising it, I was bogged down in the swamps of lower Michigan. I’d been working too long at the same job, and was stuck in an uninspired relationship that would ultimately, inevitably, go nowhere, and the urgent wanderlust of Blue Highways sparked my own, albeit unwittingly.

Heat-Moon’s fabulous prose style and way of tying together separate threads into an insightful whole made me more than eager to pick up his (at the time) latest work. But back in 1994, I couldn’t stomach it. Without understanding how desperate I was to flee the sedentary rut I was in, I found myself shrinking from PrairyErth and shrieking in a virtual agony. Six-hundred-plus pages about one county in Kansas without a single town larger than a thousand people, a place made up of little more than grassland and a few creeks and a river and some barely perceptible hills? Get me out of here!

So now I’m living in Chicago, the town that purports to be on the edge of the prairie even though nowadays you’d have to head west through two full states before you’d find anything that isn’t strictly farmland, if not sprawl. My life has turned great, I’m out of that rut (no offense to Michigan, for I’ll always consider myself a Michigander and hope to return there some day) and happily married and here I am in one of the many buildings of this amazing man-made steel mountain range, looking out to the west all the way to the very flat horizon (at least until that new high-rise over there gets a little taller, which should only be a few weeks). Though I may argue it, Chicago really does stand on the edge of the prairie, and gets its life force from the prairie, and so now, years after I bought it, PrairyErth holds quite a newfound fascination for me.

The basic premise of PrairyErth: A Deep Map is to focus acutely on the details of a single place, to get to know its people and its topology and its history. Heat-Moon arranges his book with the same meticulous symmetry that can be seen in the rectilinear map of Chase County itself.

The book is divided into twelve major sections, one for each of Chase’s quadrangles. Each section begins with a hand-drawn map of the quadrangle, followed by a few or several pages of quotations that somehow may tie in, however esoterically, with the section to follow. These quotes range over the entire length of recorded Kansas history, though not all are specifically about Kansas, from famous wordsmiths such as Thoreau and Walt Whitman to contemporary scholars.

Then comes a chapter titled “In the Quadrangle,” where Heat-Moon describes some of the history specific to that quad, usually intertwined with a fragment of his own travels within the quad in search of some artifact or place or tale. This chapter usually will also describe the arrangement of the quad, illuminating the map at the beginning of the section in a way that colours and legends and topographical lines never could.

The chapters that follow then bring tales of the people, stories that are not strictly interviews and not purely narrative, as Heat-Moon is always present (often as “that book writer who’s half a bubble off plumb”) to allow us to be vicariously invited into the homes and lives of the people of Chase. Finally, each section wraps up with a chapter, usually titled “On The Town,” that carries longer tales that thread across the quadrangles and draw them into a larger arc.

Throughout, Heat-Moon, caught on the cusp between modern America and his Native American heredity, sees the land and its people in ways that they—and perhaps we—might never see themselves, stumbles upon events of strange serendipity, and collects the pieces of the puzzle into a fragmented but splendid whole.

A thought occurred to me: PrairyErth is so full of tales, is such a detailed description of Chase County, Kansas, that my first tendency is to want to go there, for it must be such a wondrous place, full of history. My second thought is, yes but every place has its tales, its history; he could have written his book about any county in America and come away with as thick a volume, as many interesting tales and themes. Chase County is not all that unique. And yet a book about, say, my current residence of Cook County, Illinois, would be something completely different. Pondering that, I came up with a theory:

To find the old bones, the history, the geology, the major threads of a place like Cook County, one must dig quite deep, and look far beyond (and beneath) the landscape of tall buildings that even today spring forth from the ground more quickly than tallgrasses. But in Chase County, where the soil is hard, and the courthouse is the tallest building for miles, and the wind rubs off paint and patina and false personae with the ferocity of a prairie fire, the history is right there on the surface, right in front of your eyes, if you know how to look at it.

Heat-Moon’s “deep map” is certainly that, deep, but its depth comes not merely from digging in the ground but also from having the time and the patience to hear the tales as they’re blown on the Kansas wind.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

20 July 2001
Categories: From the armchair

coverWhen I was in sixth grade, I competed in a grade-wide spelling bee. I was a pretty damn good speller in those days. The bee ran well beyond its allotted time, mainly because after all the other kids were eliminated, it turned into a head-to-head battle of wits between myself and one other student. Her name was Laura H., and she was an untouchably perfect paradigm of beauty and intelligence. Probably every school has one. I pretty much had a crush on Laura from the first day of sixth grade, all the way through high school.

That day, they ultimately had to move us into a study room in the library because the classroom we were in was about to be filled with students returning from lunch. Just me, and Laura, and a proctor who gave us the words, back and forth, likely praying that one of us would screw up soon so she could go back to her regular day. On and on it went, and the tension in the room grew and grew.

Finally, I blew it, leaving out the “an” in “maintenance.” I knew how to spell the word; I just forgot where I was in spelling it.

When I went home and told my parents, my dad asked, “Is that Diane H.’s daughter? I guess I know why you let her win.” Turns out Laura’s parents went to college with mine, and her mother was quite the smart babe as well.

So despite its ignominious place in my personal history, maintenance is one of my favourite words, and it makes sense at some cosmic level that a book with “maintenance” in its title would eventually become one of my favourite books.

A more tangible clue that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (aka ZMM) is important to me: I have three copies of this book.

One is a hardcover, supposedly reissued for the book’s twentieth anniversary in 1994. This is my stay-at-home copy, the tome I protect so much that as I think of it I’m reminded that it’s still lacking a clear plastic cover for the dust jacket. It has the benefit of larger print, wide margins for note making (not that I have), and correction of most of the typos that appear in the paperback printing.

One is a pink-covered paperback, bought new when I was in high school. This is an unusual printing, the thirty-third by Bantam. In 1984, Pirsig wrote a new “introduction” for the tenth anniversary of the book’s first publishing. I quote “introduction” because this is how it’s described on the copyright notice page, but it’s more accurately described as an afterword, which is how it appears in the hardcover and later paperback printings. However, my copy has it as an actual introduction, preceding the story, which is really strange because it describes a catastrophic event that occurred ten years after the events of the story and which dramatically colours the story itself. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. I’m sure the author did not intend this, and so it was subsequently changed in the next printing. It makes my copy, as I said, unusual, and I rarely read this copy because of it.

The third copy I have, the one that I’ve been carrying around with me, is another pink-cover paperback. I specify the cover colour because I’ve seen printings with identical layouts except the background is yellow or green, rather than pink.cover I suspect these are early printings, just like when the sequel to ZMM, Lila, first came out in paperback, it was available in three colours. The copy of Lila I have is purple, but I doubt you could buy it today in anything other than green; likewise, good luck these days finding a paperback ZMM that isn’t Pepto-Bismol pink.

Anyway, this copy of ZMM has been around the block a few times. It’s not even mine. It was given to me in college by a friend who had an extra copy. I’m not sure why I took it, since I already had one of my own. Perhaps it was so that my girlfriend at the time could read it (like most people, she didn’t have privileges to my library), and when we later broke up and I moved out, the book came along with me. (As far as I know, she never read it.) So I have this copy that was battered when I got it, that’s dog-eared and losing a few pages, that I don’t mind carrying in a back pocket or reading in a light rain, that’s something of a permanent loaner, that I’ll gladly give to anyone who wants to read this wonderful book, that has a name written on the flyleaf of someone I’ve never met, that has occasional, tiny, cryptic remarks written in ink in the margins.

Some of these remarks are mere checkmarks alongside passages someone thought particularly noteworthy, but a few make much less sense. One that sticks out at me appears at the beginning of Chapter 24:

I remember the dream again and the words “I’ll see you at the bottom of the ocean” and wonder about them. But pines and sunlight are stronger than any dream and the wondering goes away. Good old reality.

At this point, the last sentence has been underlined, followed by a single word: “Ha.” This may be the easy bit to fathom. The friend that gave me this copy, like nearly everyone in my social circle in those days, was a cognoscente of psychedelics. Laughing at the notion of “good old reality” would be par for the course. The book continues:

I get out of the sleeping bag. It’s cold and I get dressed quickly. Chris is asleep. I walk around him, climb over a fallen treetrunk and walk up the logging road. To warm myself I speed up to a jog and move up the road briskly. Good, good, good, good, good. The word keeps time with the jogging…

The line beginning with “briskly” and containing the repeated word “good” has an arrow pointing to it with the words “Ahh! He knows.” Knows what? Knows that jogging is good? Knows that reality is good? Knows the true meaning of his dream? Knows that his past is welling up inside of him and it’s only a matter of time before it bursts out again? If so, what in this paragraph gives that idea?

I guess the reason I’m going into all this is because ZMM is more than a book to me, it’s an event filled with baggage. When I first read it, in high school, I was floored by it and it quite firmly adjusted my idea of reality. As I re-read it now I see those passages that I took deeply to heart and can see how much of my current belief system relies on them. There’s more baggage, of course, in the cover that stares me in the face from my desk, the one that says ZMM is “one of the most profoundly important bestsellers of our time.” (All in caps.) Along with the words “Electrifying.” “Fabulous.” “Extraordinary.” And there’s the baggage of those that have read this copy before me, as illustrated above, and all those who have read the book over the years. I mean, has a total of 247 customer reviews!

Sadly, one of those reviews, and one that appears on the main book page and not buried within the subsequent 25 pages of reviews, keeps sticking in my mind. “A reader from Topeka, KA” [sic, not the proper abbreviation for Kansas] calls it an “oddball book” and says he/she couldn’t get past page 248. Well, fuck you, Topeka. The quality of this or any other book notwithstanding, I firmly believe that if you can’t finish the book you don’t have the right to criticize it in print. It’s obvious that Topeka didn’t “get” ZMM, if for no other reason that he/she insists on calling it a “novel,” which implies fiction, which ZMM is not. I think it’s most particularly ironic that page 248 is exactly one page before Pirsig goes into the discussion of “stuckness.”

(Okay, so maybe I’m defensive. And maybe 247 isn’t all that many reviews… for example, The Celestine Prophesy has 571. Of course, it’s a helluva lot easier to grasp than ZMM.)

But all this baggage makes me much more critical of the book than I ever have been before. It’s kind of like putting a good rock-and-roll album on in the car while driving with your mother. How many times have I heard mine complain about the “noise,” when all I could hear was jamming, if shrieking, electric guitar? (Although I never could adequately defend my Emerson, Lake & Palmer phase, and perhaps still can’t.) Riding on the train, I actually found myself embarrassed to be reading ZMM. After finishing, I noticed another guy on the train reading it, and my first thought was, “you poor bastard.” Why do I feel this way? ZMM is a great book! Sure, it’s not quite as cerebral as reading Critique of Pure Reason. And sometimes Pirsig sounds painfully full of himself, as if he thinks the ideas he’s espousing are the most earth-shattering concepts ever.

Then again, maybe it’s just a case of the old saw, “familiarity breeds contempt.” You hear a radical new idea for the first time, and you can’t fathom it. Hear it again, and it begins to make sense. Again, and you can start to assimilate it. Hear it for the tenth time, and it’s old news.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not old news. It’s a fresh look at the fundamental philosophical biases that western culture has considered a given since the days of Aristotle, and a means to move beyond them. It’s as timely and important today as it was 25 years ago. Get some gumption, and give it a read.

Zodiac: An Eco-Thriller by Neal Stephenson

19 June 2001
Categories: From the armchair

coverLife is full of little coincidences. I tend to believe that the more coincidences you notice while following a certain path, the better the likelihood that that path is the right one to follow. In other words, the world has a strange way of aligning itself into a coherent, integral whole just when you’re at one with it.

In a mundane way, I will take the following anecdote to mean that I was reading Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac at the right time in my life.

Zodiac is told from the first-person perspective of Sangamon Taylor, an environmental activist who fancies himself a “Toxic Spiderman” while most people, to his chagrin, call him “Granola James Bond.” S.T. likes to spend his time racing around Boston Harbor in an overpowered Zodiac inflatable raft, searching to uncover the latest industrial crime to pollute those already-despoiled waters. As a part of this pursuit, he has enlisted local lobstermen to provide him with any odd or deformed lobsters they catch, along with data on where they were caught. S.T. hopes to use these data to pinpoint toxic spills in the harbor and thereby to take down the large corporations responsible.

Recently my wife went to the latest travesty of Sprawl to inflict itself on the landscape, Costco, and bought a 12-pack of assorted flavours of Jones Soda. If you’re not familiar with Jones Soda, it’s a hip little upstart soda company from Canada with a collection of classic and/or funky flavours including cream soda, grape, and (no joke) blue bubble gum. Their kitschiest gimmick is that their labels sport photographs submitted by anyone and everyone, with subject matter that might be almost anything—I’ve seen landscapes, people on the beach, seals at the zoo, even a bowling alley where the #1 pin has been stood on its head. The labels are always changing, and always give credit to the submitter and their hometown.

One of the flavours in that 12-pack was Green Apple. It’s a frightful shade of neon green that you can really only get by mixing Yellow #5 and Blue #1. That said, it’s a surprisingly tasty soda with all-natural flavouring, a nice tart apple without being too sickly sweet.

Then I looked closely at the label, and discovered that while reading a book about toxic lobsters, I was drinking a toxic-waste-green soda bearing a picture of… cartoonishly caricatured giant stuffed lobsters!

Stephenson wrote Zodiac back in 1988, and in very minor ways the book dates itself. I was surprised that S.T. didn’t use GPS to pinpoint his position in the harbor, until I remembered that the first operational GPS satellite wasn’t launched until February 1989 and it would be several years before handheld receivers would be available to the public. In so many ways, though, this book is as timely now as it was then, and environmental catastrophe probably looms larger on the horizon now than it did then. Which makes it all the more scary.

The main plot of Zodiac has to do with Basco, Inc., a fictitious chemical company that creates, through one of its subsidiaries, a genetically altered bacterium that converts PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, nasty stuff) into harmless saltwater. They use these bacteria to cover up a PCB spill that they dumped years before and which recently began to leak. In a sense, this new “bug” is a helpful thing for the environment.

Now, big chemical companies use PCBs in a lot of their operations, and need to make large quantities of the stuff through a method that requires lots of expensive electrical power. Basco realizes that if it can create a bug that converts PCBs to saltwater, it can engineer one to perform the reverse process, thus allowing them to make PCBs out of readily available seawater, for cheap. Unfortunately, this bug gets loose, apparently through subterfuge, and enters the harbor. And unless S.T. and his compatriots can stop it, the new bug threatens to poison the entire harbor and, in the worst case, the entire world.

Zodiac is exciting and fast-paced, and full of Stephenson’s trademark: long rambling discussions rife with plot-significant technojargon. As a technogeek, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and as it reached a climax, with machine guns cracking and explosions tearing through the water, I found myself thinking, “this book would make a great movie.”

I have several trains of thought about that. One is that the book is awfully predictable. As soon as S.T. begins to talk about a bacterium that can convert PCBs to saltwater, I knew there’d be a bug that does the opposite. That’s why I don’t feel bad about mentioning it previously, because it’s not much of a spoiler. Of course, predictability does not stop most movies from being made.

The idea of a movie version of Zodiac immediately made me think of another author: Michael Crichton. Every Crichton book I’ve read (The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Sphere) reads like nothing more than an extended screenplay treatment. (A ‘treatment,’ for those not familiar with film argot, is a short novelistic summary of a screenplay, usually used to sell that screenplay.) This seems to be more and more the case with Crichton from year to year: Sphere, especially, had no character development and I knew, just from reading it, that it would soon be made into a blockbuster movie with really cool special effects—and a piece of crap.

On the other hand, Stephenson has a sharp wit and attacks his subjects with a levity, vicious though it is, that Crichton lacks. After all, in the acknowledgements for Zodiac the author takes pride in the fact that a friend who read the rough draft said the main character is a total asshole; Neal says that’s how he knew he was on the right track.

Then I thought about Jurassic Park. In the book, the mathematician Malcolm (played in the film by Jeff Goldblum) is bitten by a dinosaur early on and spends the rest of the story in a feverish delirium, ranting at length about chaos theory, genetics, and the dangers of human hubris when playing with those things. Malcolm is the conscience of the book, and carries the entire crux of the message Crichton is trying to put forth. In the movie, however, Malcolm’s rant is reduced to perhaps one or two brief lines, and non sequiturs at that. The result: total Spielbergization, a Disney theme park of a movie.

That’s one of the biggest problems with movies today. No dialogue. If S.T.’s diatribes were cut, not only would the message of Zodiac be lost, but much of the necessary exposition and plot development would be lost too. The whole book would be reduced to a cool boat chase involving S.T.’s Zodiac and a high-speed Cigarette boat, and a lot of gunplay at the end.

I’m sure they’d cut out all the casual drug use, as well. For one, S.T.’s a big nitrous oxide user. He has a personal tenet he calls “Sangamon’s Principle” that essentially says simple molecules are better, because you never know what side effects more complicated compounds will have. Hence the affinity for N2O, which he huffs all the time. But then there’s also pot and LSD and ‘shroom use, and PCP (by the bad guys).

And finally, I doubt the city of Boston would want the kind of negative publicity this book engenders by describing Boston Harbor as one gigantic sewer, which like all major metropolitan waterways it is. The city would probably balk at having the movie shot there, even if it were made out to be some generic, unnamed major city, which might be difficult, because Stephenson uses so many well-known locations such as Fenway Park, Spectacle Island, and Harvard Square.

In fact, this brings up another point about Stephenson. His books almost demand accompanying maps because of his integral use of topology to tell his stories. The Diamond Age needs a map of Shanghai and environs in the late 21st Century. Cryptonomicon relies on a knowledge of modern-day Manila and Luzon. And Zodiac is constantly moving about on a real-world map of Boston. In fact, Stephenson’s description of the location of Basco’s main plant in Everett, Massachusetts, is so specific that I’d like to know what corporation really does own the land described. Then again, perhaps he changed the landscape just enough to avoid a potential lawsuit.

Okay, enough rambling. The upshot of Zodiac is this: it’s a quick, predictable, fun read. Good action movie potential, if there are any screenwriters left in Hollywood that are capable of writing dense, complicated, technically inclined dialogue. And enough environmental concerns to make one want to swear off lobsters forever. Except those on a bottle of Jones Soda.

(Zodiac has been nominated for inclusion on the Shut List.)

The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

12 June 2001
Categories: From the armchair

coverWith a writer as trailblazing as Neal Stephenson, it’s hard to know where to begin to describe The Diamond Age.

The story takes place sometime late in the 21st Century. Imagine if the near-term future of Snow Crash was carried forward by several decades through a nanotechnology revolution. As in Snow Crash, the world of The Diamond Age no longer contains governments per se. Nanotech has created a hierarchical society where those with a Source of nanotech elements, or control over the Feeds that transmit those elements, hold the power. At the same time, nanotech is so pervasive that every home contains a Matter Compiler to create common objects and simple food, and “mites,” microscopic airborne drones with myriad purposes, both benign and malignant, fill the air and are inhaled with every breath. “Toner wars,” so named because of the swirling clouds of dead mites that fill the air like the black dust of a photocopier, frequently rage between competing manufacturers. Even a simple sheet of paper is a “mediatron,” a computer-embedded system capable of receiving voice commands and displaying text, images, and moving pictures with the resolution of a high-definition television.

The story takes place in Shanghai and its environs, which like the rest of the world is divided up into “claves,” regions of common ethnic or economic heritage. High in the hills is the clave of Atlantis, where dwell the Neo-Victorians. (Queen Victoria II is their ruler, though England as a sovereign nation with physical borders no longer exists.) Much like the original Victorians, who reacted against the low morals of the age that preceded them, the Neo-Victorians have a strict code of conduct and morality. (This is perhaps a commentary on our society today and where we appear to be headed.) Once of these is John Hackworth, a professional artifex (nanotech engineer) of high skill and regard, who despite his talents is not a member of the nobility. Hackworth’s boss is an Equity Lord by the name of Finkle-McGraw. The Lord long ago gained his status by being a rebel and taking risks; he despairs to find that his children are not risk-takers and fears that his young granddaughter will never reach her potential in the schools of the establishment. Unable to interfere in her upbringing directly, Lord Finkle-McGraw commissions Hackworth to design A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an interactive mediatronic book. The concept is that a Primer will bond itself to its owner, tailoring its stories to the young female reader, and providing tutorial lessons that she will find most interesting and useful to her unique situation. By giving this book to his granddaughter as a gift on her fourth birthday, Lord Finkle-McGraw will have an avenue with which to expose her to ideas and concepts the Neo-Victorians (including her parents) would find subversive and potentially dangerous, but which will almost certainly come in handy to her as she grows up.

Hackworth, who has a young daughter of his own, sees an opportunity to boost her out of the middle-class caste to which he has resigned himself. He steals a copy of the compiler code that would program a Matter Compiler to create the Primer (committing the theft through an ingenious use of nanotechnology, of course). He crosses into an unsavoury part of Shanghai to compile a Primer at an underground Source, but before he can return home with his daughter’s Primer, he is attacked by street thugs and robbed.

The contraband Primer winds up in the hands of Nell, yet another four-year-old girl who lives in a hell of destitution, ignorance, and physical abuse in a Shanghai tenement. The Primer bonds to Nell and quickly begins to teach her to read, and soon after, self-defence. Through the rest of The Diamond Age, we follow Nell as she grows to be an educated, intelligent, resourceful young woman, and we simultaneously read, with her, the adventures of Princess Nell, the protagonist in her Primer. Meanwhile, all around her, local and world events steadily crumble into anarchy and rebellion. The world needs a saviour, and it might just take the form of Princess Nell, as by the end of the book Nell and her fictitious alter-ego have become one and the same.

Neal Stephenson has created here, for the first time, a total-immersion reality. Cryptonomicon and Zodiac take place in the present day, and Snow Crash is so close in the future that its reality is barely one step removed from what we know today, and so is strangely familiar. The Diamond Age, on the other hand, finds us in a world totally transformed by nanotechnology. We are thrown head first into a world of claves, thetes, and ractives, Sources and Feeds, and only gradually does Stephenson reveal what those are. The ploy of using a character’s off-handed comment to explain a term, rather than frankly spelling it out in a descriptive paragraph, is effective in maintaining the sense of immersion, as if we’re part of this world and don’t need an explanation. Meanwhile, Stephenson’s penchant for using big words continues, often describing the most mundane action or event in the most entertainingly flowery language. But beyond all that, his words convey startling concepts for the future of technology, and simultaneously frightening and inspiring prophesies for human society.

The Diamond Age earned the 1996 Hugo award for best novel. For good reason. This was Neal Stephenson’s strongest effort to date, and well worth a read.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series

8 January 2000
Categories: From the armchair
28 Barbary Lane

Tales of the City
More Tales of the City
Further Tales of the City
Back to Barbary Lane

Significant Others
Sure Of You

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 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.