I just finished reading Armistead Maupin’s newest book, Michael Tolliver Lives â€” well, inhaling it really, because reading Michael Tolliver Lives is less like reading a novel than it is like opening a richly detailed letter from an old friend you inexplicably lost touch with about 15 years ago, and suddenly here he is giving you all the good dish on various people you used to know and have been missing and wondering about the whole time.
So yeah, it’s a fast read, and my only real complaint is that it’s over so soon.
Maupin has gone to some pains to say that this is not a seventh book of the Tales of the City series â€” but I think that’s mainly expectations-lowering. (And according to Wikipedia, Maupin has already backpedaled on that point.) It’s true that the style of the book is different from the six Tales books â€” it’s less dense with plotting, more relaxed and realistic. There are no secret cults or embedded murder mysteries to keep the pages turning this time out. But I think that’s actually to its credit â€” with Michael Tolliver Lives, Maupin is content to let his characters and their believable lives carry the story, instead of throwing in sensationalistic plot elements to make it feel epic.
Or put it like this: Instead of getting embroiled in the story, this time Michael and his friends are the story.
At any rate, in terms of the things that matter â€” characters and continuity â€” it’s very much part of the series. Starting with Michael “Mouse” Tolliver himself, all the members of the Barbary Lane family turn up one by one. Anna Madrigal, bless her, is with us and adjusting her turban by page eight, 85 years old and coping with email spam like the rest of us.
Brian is not far behind, and we find out what became of Mona as well. DeDe and D’orothea are accounted for, and there’s room for some remembrance of Mouse’s first love Jon, who passed away in the earlier series. Even Mother Mucca gets a mention.
And yes, a certain disgraced former female protagonist, whom Michael can’t even bring himself to refer to by name for the first half of the book, appears eventually, and (spoiler alert, although if you’re truly surprised by this you should probably get out more) she gets her shot at redemption for her sins of the 80s by the end of the story.
There are some engaging new characters as well, including a laconic-but-lovable FTM transman named Jake, who makes a nice younger-generation complement to Anna Madrigal.
Maupin’s main narrative concerns the effects of aging on characters who were largely defined by their youthful outlook and energy, at least one of whom hadn’t expected to survive into his fifties. (Hence the title â€” Michael Tolliver was coping with AIDS when the sixth book wrapped up at the end of the 80s, and the miracle-working HIV cocktails of the 90s were more than half a decade away.)
Despite all this connectedness to the previous series, there were times when I actually found myself forgetting that the protagonist was Michael “Mouse” Tolliver for long stretches of the book, and simply picturing him as Maupin himself — since Mouse’s life at 55 seems to line up so well with what we know of Maupin’s as revealed in interviews and articles (e.g., his intergenerational relationship with his current partner), and Mouse’s current voice is pretty much indistinguishable from the voice Maupin uses when he speaks and writes as himself.
Of course I’m sure there are plenty of fictionalized differences, but the Mouse of the 00s reads as a barely disguised portrait of his creator. Which is not a complaint, since Maupin writing about his own life is on sure territory and has plenty of witty and compelling material to work with. It’s only occasionally jarring when someone addresses Mouse by name and you remember that you’re still in the universe of fiction rather than autobiography.
If you’ve already read the original Tales of the City series, this is a great book to turn to when you need a little literary comfort food to cheer you up. Take a weekend to unplug the phone and catch up on how time has treated the denizens of Barbary Lane.
On the other hand, if you haven’t read the earlier books yet, I wouldn’t start with this one â€” too much like eating dessert before dinner. You’ll enjoy all the revelations of Michael Tolliver Lives much more if you already know and love the characters first. I’d recommend just picking up the first book and diving in.
In fact, you can even start by watching the PBS Tales of the City miniseries with Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis â€” you’ll be well primed to read the books after that. (Be aware though, that according to the customer reviews on Amazon, the DVD version is censored with overdubbed “clean” language despite the claim on the box that it’s the original unedited Senator-shocking version that ran on PBS. So, if you want to see it as it originally aired, you should probably try to dig up a VHS copy if you can. Although apparently even that isn’t a total guarantee â€” depending on what edition you get, the tapes could be “cleaned up,” too. But at least I can say that the VHS versions I rented from the Specialty Video in Andersonville back in the 90s were intact, so possibly the older the copy the truer?)
UPDATE: I just found out there’s now an eighth book in the works. From an interview with Maupin in Entertainment Weekly:
Another book about the Tales characters. I’ve lived in that world for 30 years, even when I was writing non-Tales books. Whatever I have to offer seems to come through those characters, and I see no reason to abandon them.
Previously on Ocelopotamus: