Book Review: Michael Tolliver Lives, Armistead Maupin

Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin’s legendary saga of San Francisco life, made gay fiction humorous and accessible. Now, after almost 20 years, Maupin reunites his devoted readers with their favourite characters in ‘Michael Tolliver Lives’…

The international best-selling ‘Tales of the City’ series, which centred around the San Francisco bohemian gay scene, started life as a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle back in 1976. Following the lives of the wonderful residents of 28 Barbary Lane, it spawned six books, three mini-series, a San Francisco ‘Tales of the City’ sight-seeing tour, legions of fans, and made writer Armistead Maupin a star. 

If that’s not enough, 12 June 2007 has been officially designated Michael Tolliver Day in San Francisco. Here in the UK, ‘Tales of the City’ won the coveted Big Gay Read in 2006 - for the nation’s favourite gay/lesbian novel.

Armistead, 63, now lives with his 36-year old husband Christopher Turner, a website entrepreneur, in a house in the woods overlooking San Francisco Bay.

From its humble newspaper beginnings, ‘Tales of the City’ soon became a surprising international sensation. At the heart of its popularity was Maupin’s flair in creating an eclectic mix of eccentric, yet believable characters, that embodied San Francisco in the 70s and 80s. Also integral to its success was his ability to place his narrative against the backdrop of larger events in US history - from the Jonestown massacre to the AIDS crisis.

The tales began with the arrival of fresh-faced Midwesterner Mary Ann Singleton to Barbary Lane, and continued to follow the lives of Mary Ann and her colourful alternative family; Anna Madrigal, the pot-growing transsexual landlady and matriarch; Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver, the sweet southern but unfulfilled gay man; Mona Ramsay, the bisexual ex-hippie; and Brian Hawkins, the heterosexual lothario. But, when we left them thirteen years later, Mary Ann had moved to New York and Mouse was left trying to cope with his supposed HIV death sentence. 

‘Michael Tolliver Lives’ is the long-awaited book which finally reunites Maupin’s devoted readers with Michael as he continues the story in his own words. But, after the success of ‘Tales of the City’, and almost twenty years since the groundbreaking saga ended, Maupin has a lot to live up to.

Now in his 50s, mildly arthritic, and working as a landscape gardener, Michael has, as the title suggests, survived the disease which has killed so many of his friends and lovers and is now married to a much younger man. We join him as he embraces life, finds love with Ben McKenna, visits his dying mother in Florida, and copes with his born-again Christian relatives.

Maupin has vehemently insisted this is not a continuation of the series, but a freestanding novel. The most notable difference between ‘Michael Tolliver Lives’ and the ‘Tales’ is that it is written in the first person, whilst the original stories were written in the third. But this allows Maupin to utilise a more personal and introspective style of writing. 

Despite this insistence, many of the favourite characters from the series reappear, and it does, in fact, read like a reunion. In San Francisco 2007 Mary Ann is a wealthy wife visiting from Connecticut, Anna Madrigal an octogenarian living in a garden apartment, and the once randy heterosexual bachelor Brian Hawkins lives life as a troubled single father. Their lives and lifestyles have dramatically moved on from ‘Tales of the City’, and a newcomer may feel like a piece of the jigsaw puzzle is missing, finding it difficult to establish an empathy and bond with characters in the same way as devoted followers no doubt will. 

An interesting disparity between ‘Michael Tolliver Lives’ and the previous six volumes is the prominence of politics in the narrative. Michael tackles and takes umbrage at the War on Terror, his born-again relatives, racists and homophobes. However, an obvious explanation for this is the inevitable maturing of Michael as a character, with the logical political leanings and moral views that age and wisdom bring.

Political activism is just one of the noticeable similarities between Michael and Maupin himself. Michael first sees husband Ben on a gay dating website and subsequently bumps into him in the street. Maupin is also married to a much younger man he saw on the internet before bumping into him in the street. But, it’s not simply Michael, aspects of Maupin’s personality can be identified in many of the principal characters, from the once innocent out-of-towner Mary Ann, resonating of Maupin when he first moved to San Francisco in 1971, to Anna Madrigal, the mysterious matriarch.

Loyal fans who have waited two decades for this book will not be disappointed. ‘Michael Tolliver Lives’ is a funny, heartwarming, and sympathetic tale which brings the reader right up-to-date with the wonderful characters from Barbary Lane - and will leave them hoping Maupin doesn’t leave it quite so long next time!

‘Michael Tolliver Lives’ is released in the UK by Doubleday Publishers on 18th June 2007, priced £17.99