This was a much anticipated read as most readers of gay Lit over the past almost 40 years and 6Million+ copies must have some appreciation of the ‘Tales of the City’ series by Armistead Maupin as well as his other novels and occasional works. While opinions vary, I have always appreciated and enjoyed all the series (though with a few dips in quality). Given the period covered, the books have reflected so many issues that have impacted generations of gay men and women who reached their adulthood in and after the sixties and seventies and many have wondered how much of Maupin’s real life experiences had found their way into their covers. We now have some answers. I found the cover design intriguing also.
The origins of the series as a newspaper serial have always been well known especially with their parallels with Dickens (I say that very deliberately). This book nests their creation within a very interesting life trajectory from an utterly traditional deep South conservative Republican background and homophobic father and brother through a series of rocky awakenings including Naval service in Vietnam and that utterly conventional glimpse of San Francisco from the deck of a returning navy ship and what it might hold for a footloose young gay man.
What has to be noted, however, is that this is not a tale of rejection of his past and the demonising of all the agents of his background (with the obvious exception of Anita Bryant – look her up if you are too young to remember her). He has clung to much of the essential warmth and gentleness that arose from his early years (he still sleeps in grand pappy Branch’s sleigh bed to this day) and it informs his view of the world. His struggles, fears and outrages over the years are quite similar to many of my generation and the manner in which he dealt with them was often funny, lively and cheekily humorous while never avoiding encroaching darknesses all with a wonderful sense of irony and wit. His much quoted ‘Letter to Mama’ must have struck a cord in the hearts of millions of gay men and women coming to terms with a straight world and family.
I had to enjoy his tales of early fumbling experiences and where they were located and understood his long period of physical sexual self-denial and the mixed emotional bases for his behaviour at that time. His time in the Navy and especially in Vietnam was almost entirely new for me as yet another example of those non-existent gay men and women at war. His experience with Nixon and appearance on the notorious tapes was intriguing as was his contribution to the de-mystifying of the life of Rock Hudson, again with joy, warmth and understanding of that icon (he does rate that word). He is still unhappy at the closeted world that Hollywood continues to be to this day. He handles the overlay of Harvey Milk’s assassination with a key moment in his family life with much tenderness again. It goes without saying that his real life experiences in the saunas and sex clubs of San Francisco and the subsequent AIDS years informed the series plots and characters as in the case of Dr Jon Fielding in the 1984 ‘Babycakes’. They were often related to his daily life experiences and lovers and friends. I took pleasure in reading about his interactions with Christopher Isherwood (having worked my way through his hypochondriac diaries). Maupin obviously saw him as an historically great man of gay letters and was warmed by his praise. The book includes one of Don Bachardy’s drawings that is particularly good.
It was good to hear his writing voice again with its ease of flow, warmth and sense of familiarity and optimism. Very much recommended.
He concludes for his ‘logical’ family
“I think we’re in a much better place than when I began writing, despite all the efforts of right wingers around the world, simply because we are more visible and there are good people out there who know who we are, who love us and will fight for us. I am proud to have been a part of that fight over the last 40 years.”