Armistead Maupin’s first visit to the beloved characters of 28 Barbary Lane in 17 years, “Michael Tolliver Lives” (HarperCollins Publishers, $25.95, 288 pages), will feel like a welcome reunion for many of his readers who loved “Tales of the City.” For those new to his work, it will provide a sweet, earthy take on love and aging in the era of Internet dating.
Having survived the death of his lover and many friends and still living with AIDS himself, Michael Tolliver is as surprised as anyone else to find himself very much alive. Older, paunchier, obsessed with home decor and madly in love with his much younger husband, Tolliver serves as a rueful, bemused narrator of life in The City. Middle-age becomes him, he is finding, as he adapts to new roles as a “daddy” and as a source of strength for his family.
Maupin has always had a talent for handling dark themes with such light humor that readers barely feel the sting. At the heart of this novel is Tolliver’s relationship with his family, both the conservative blood family that he fled in his 20s and the “logical” family he has chosen for himself. Dark secrets are uncovered and bonds rebuilt, but Maupin, 62, never leaves any doubt as to where his heart lies.
Other familiar characters are also still on the scene, although the women, somewhat oddly, have mostly departed. Former Lothario Brian Hawkins is retiring to life in an RV and squirming at the sexually explicit blogging of his daughter. Transsexual grande dame Anna Madrigal has been forced out of her hillside home by a stroke but kept her sass and her extended family of young admirers.
Maupin’s Barbary Lane novels have always read like extended love letters to The City and to the 1970s, the era in which they began. The new novel, too, reads like an instant time capsule loaded with references to the dot-com boom, Burning Man, The Lusty Lady, gay marriages at City Hall, Terri Schiavo, marijuana vaporizers and GPS vehicle navigation systems.
But in Maupin’s world, no matter how it changes, San Francisco is still first and foremost a haven for those who cannot feel safe to be themselves anywhere else, and it is this city he continues to celebrate.
Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office has proclaimed today (June 12) “Michael Tolliver Day” in San Francisco; Armistead Maupin will appear at 12:30 p.m. at BookPassage, 1 Ferry Building, #42, (415) 835-1020; and at 7 p.m. at Books Inc., Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Ave., (415) 776-1111.