Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’: The Best Soap Opera in Book Form
Over 6 million copies of Armistead Maupin’s big-hearted epic have been sold worldwide, with readers drawn to engaging characters and emotional, sometimes wild drama.
For anyone who reads Armistead Maupin’s Tales of The City, it doesn’t matter that 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco is a fictional address. When you’re in the city, at least for the first time, you want to find it. You want to be there, and screw-fiction, find its occupants—landlady Anna Madrigal, and that first book's golden group of tenants: Mona, Michael (Mouse), Brian, and Mary Ann.
DeDe, D’or, Edgar, Beauchamp, Jon, Frannie, Mother Mucca, Thack, Shawna, Ben: sure it would be lovely to see them too. But really you want to see Mrs. Madrigal, sweeping the steps, fixing a stray wisp of her hair, and welcoming you, in her grandly mysterious way, to all the intrigues within.
Yes, Macondray Lane on Russian Hill exists, the nearest-as-heck approximation of where 28 Barbary Lane is. When I visited it it felt thrilling to be in its shadowy, leafy embrace. But 28 Barbary Lane felt even more natural, even more alive and pungent, in my imagination. That is Maupin’s great skill in the Tales series.
The chapters are short and episodic because Maupin wrote the story first of all as a newspaper column, first in the alternative weekly newspaper Pacific Sun, then the San Francisco Examiner.
These books are supremely engaging, moving, dramatic soap operas in book form, and they have rightly earned Maupin awards, acclaim, the devotion and thanks of his readers, and sales of the series in excess of six million copies worldwide.
It is no understatement to say that you disappear into Tales of The City. That is how immersive Maupin’s world is. You won’t surface for days, months. He takes you around every nook and cranny, he knows every nook and cranny; and he knows the city's society – high, low, LGBT, straight – with equal sagacity.
Any interruption (any interruption) to reading Tales of The City (1978), More Tales of The City (1980), Further Tales of The City (1982), Babycakes (1984), Significant Others (1987), Sure of You (1989), Michael Tolliver Lives (2007), Mary Ann In Autumn (2010), and The Days of Anna Madrigal (2014), is an unwelcome one.
As those publishing dates intimate, the saga begins in the second half of the 1970s and continues through to the present day.
Maupin himself is a charming, generous man. I have been fortunate enough to meet and interview him, most recently in 2014. Last year, he published a brilliantly written memoir, Logical Family.
Tales has had a life away from the page. In the mid-1990s, there was a TV mini-series of the first and second books (this author watched it with a group of friends, our mouths agape at seeing the characters and locales of our imaginations made into 3-D and human form!). An adaptation of the third novel was broadcast in 2001. There has been a musical (with songs by Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters) and BBC Radio 4 has dramatized the books.
Now Netflix are planning a ten-part series that will debut next year, presumably taking the story forward from Babycakes.
My love affair with Tales began with those first six books, as it did for so many people. I didn’t have the paperbacks, but (this was 1990), all six books in two huge hardbacks, three novels packed into each. These hardbacks were lent to so many friends and traveled with me so much, their covers grew ragged.
The first Tales follows Mary Ann arriving from Cleveland, her wide-eyed surprise at the free-and-easy San Francisco of the 70s; the fug of dope-smoke wreathed around 28 Barbary Lane; the mystery of Mrs. Madrigal; Michael’s desire for love; Mona's bohemian roaming; and the adventures of Brian, a horny straight waiter.
Inside 28 Barbary Lane, we find a family not united by love, but friendship, intimacies, and deep bonds. We follow Michael as he wins the underwear contest at a gay bar, before welcoming his conservative parents to town (his cover almost blown by some rollerskaters in nun-drag). His “Letter To Mama” remains a template for any child coming out to their parents.
Maupin’s contribution to contemporary LGBT culture has been huge, immeasurable. His gay, bi, and trans characters, his openness about gay life, was years ahead of its time.
Long before confident, honest portrayals of gay and trans people, Maupin brought them, in all their assertiveness and realness, to the mainstream. There was to be no hand-holding, or pleas for understanding in Tales of The City: you either get with the characters, and with the living, breathing, many-layered San Francisco Maupin imagines, or you do not. (My advice: get with it.)
You follow the ritzy DeDe as she slowly realizes how awful her husband Beauchamp is, her relationship with the model D’or, and their escape from death. Mary Ann’s ascent to TV stardom changes her and all the relationships around her. Someone is out to get Mrs. Madrigal, but who could it be; and just wait for the delicious line she delivers at that storyline’s culmination.
The Tales characters are not based on real people but “inner drives and aspects of myself,” Maupin once said: “Mary-Ann my ambition, Mona my world-weariness. Michael was a romantic, Brian the sexual predator. Mrs. Madrigal was the wiser me.”
Tales has its soapy excesses. But Maupin is just as adept at sketching the mess and magic of real life. The books follow the ebb and flow of political and cultural tides of the eras they are set in.
We experience the impact of HIV and AIDS and its cost, differing strains of feminism, LGBT liberation politics, lesbian parenting, sexual fluidity, and the worlds of characters with huge fortunes and those without. There is homophobia, pregnancy, intrigue, adultery, love, relationships blooming, relationships dying, ambition, shocks, twists, secret identities, and more secrets—and a fatal incident involving a clip-on tie.
Maupin is as generous and ruthless with his LGBT characters as he is with his straight: Tales is an equal-opportunities sudsy rollercoaster.
We don’t just stay in San Francisco. In Babycakes, a typically complicated storyline unfolds in the U.K., and later on Michael, by now an older man with a younger partner (just like Maupin himself) heads to Burning Man.
Rock Hudson, unnamed, is the inspiration for a closeted movie star in one of the books (where that star's name should go, Maupin uses a meaningful, anonymity-endowing hyphen). There’s a closeted fashion designer, who (at the time, seemed very much like another one), who earns a well-earned dressing-down from Michael for his hypocrisy.
With Sure of You, we thought Barbary Lane had disappeared from our lives forever, and then Michael Tolliver Lives appeared 18 years later. Maupin initially denied the 2007 novel was a sequel (its narrating perspective differed from the main body of novels), but Maupin eventually accepted that it was a continuation of Tales.
With the 2014 Mrs. Madrigal-themed novel, Maupin returned to “the beating heart of the story,” as he told me. “I really enjoyed the chance of surveying the full 75-year scope of her story. She’s my better angel. She’s the person I aspire to be. It was fun spending time in her presence and imagining her as a 16-year-old boy.”
This really would be the final Tales novel, he said.“I’ve been accused of ‘Cher’s last tour’ syndrome, and there’ll be another. But there really won’t.”
“It’s beyond thrilling,” Maupin recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of the coming Netflix series. “I can’t tell you what goose bumps it gave me to go on that soundstage to see that three-story 28 Barbary Lane—an even more detailed version than it was before—and many of the cast members are coming back. And they all look so damn good, you can’t believe 25 years have passed [since the first TV adaptation].”
If Tales of The City, the book series, is really at an end, it is also never really over – not just because of Netflix, but because of every new generation of readers that discovers its epic magic. So, before the Netflix show airs, buy the books and disappear.
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