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CARPE LIBRUM: A 36-year serialized tale with fascinating characters comes to an end

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Gwenyfar concludes one of her favorite serialized stories to date: ‘Tales of the City.’

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

daysofoannaTales of the City Book Series
By Armistead Maupin

“Sweetheart you are either going to have to wait or get your own dinner tonight,” I said to Jock.

It is not often I say that, but I was reading my first “Tales of the City” book by Armistead Maupin. And I could not put it down. Could not.

I didn’t start at the beginning of the series; I actually picked up the last one from the end—“Mary Ann in Autumn”—and I was completely hooked. I immediately bought all the proceeding books and caught up on one of the most fascinating and compassionate family sagas recorded in print: “Tales of the City.”

There are very few books for which I have awaited the release. When it was announced that Maupin was writing the final book in the series, I almost exploded with excitement and anticipation. After months of build-up, I decided not to read it—at least not quite then. I just couldn’t bear for the series to end.

After over a year of delay, I finally could no longer resist. I sat down to read, in one sitting, Maupin’s “The Days of Anna Madrigal”—the ninth and final book in his groundbreaking and magical story.

Set in and around San Francisco, “Tales of the City” began as serialized fiction in 1974 and made a splash with the San Francisco Chronicle. Perhaps that’s part of my attraction to the series: I have unexpectedly found myself working with that particular form of fiction in my adult life and have tremendous respect for the difficulty of writing for a group of readers who can encounter the work at any point in the story line. The series follows life for a soap opera-like group of people in San Francisco from the 1970s through 2014. Most of the early books center around the activity at 28 Barberry Lane—a subdivided apartment house presided over by Anna Madrigal the landlady/ concierge/defacto matriarch of the tribe she has assembled.

It is San Francisco in the ‘70s: wild, Bohemian and free. It is attractive to all walks of life, from Mary Ann, the middle-class square who yearns to break free, to the unrestrained, self-described “bull dike,” Mona, to man’s gift to woman-kind, Brian, and his friend, the ever-evolving and ever-struggling Michael “Mouse” Tolliver of Florida. In between we find society columnists, American aristocrats and ad executives who, like the rest of us, wander in and out of their respective search for personal truth.   

There are many surprises about Maupin and “Tales of the City.” For Tar Heel readers, one of the biggest is he is one of us. The books are so emblematic of San Francisco; it is virtually impossible for readers to separate him mentally from there (even though he and husband Chris now have a home if Santa Fe). But he grew up in NC, attended Chapel Hill and even worked for Jesse Helms at WRAL before landing on the West Coast.

Part of what makes the books so relevant and captivating is he wrote them in real time. So when Jim Jones and The People’s Temple arrive on the political and social scene in San Francisco, two characters from “Tales of the City” are attracted by it. Prior to the move to Guyana, Jones was active in politics and served as chair of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. As circumstances of Jim Jones spiral, and Jonestown is created, Maupin incorporates the reverberations into the narrative. Some of the most terrifying, white-knuckling prose I have ever read details DeDe and D’Or escaping from Jonestown with their twin children.

In addition, when a strange and deadly disease attacks gay men in San Francisco, Maupin brings this unavoidable reality to the narrative. Michael Tolliver loses his love to the horrific and then unnamed ailment. Later, in “Michael Tolliver Lives” (book seven), we see him living with that same disease, now as a medically manageable chronic illness, rather than a death sentence.

We also see San Francisco transformed into the play land of dot com wealth—a city now priced out of attainability for anyone not making a million a year. Maupin wrote a coming-out letter for Michael when Tolliver’s parents become involved with Anita Bryant’s campaign, and it appears in the series. Of the many praises that Maupin has received for “Tales,” the enormous number of people who have told him they used that letter as a template for their own coming-out to their families has been his favorite. Here’s a small excerpt:

“I have friends who think I’m foolish to write this letter. I hope they’re wrong. I hope their doubts are based on parents who loved and trusted them less than mine do. I hope especially that you’ll see this as an act of love on my part, a sign of my continuing need to share my life with you. I wouldn’t have written, I guess, if you hadn’t told me about your involvement in the Save Our Children campaign. That, more than anything, made it clear that my responsibility was to tell you the truth, that your own child is homosexual, and that I never needed saving from anything except the cruel and ignorant piety of people like Anita Bryant.”

It has been quite a journey for Maupin: the book series, a TV mini-series (Olympia Dukakis as Mrs. Madrigal and Laura Linney as Mary Ann) and a stage musical adaptation. Like all good things, “Tales of the City” comes to an end with the passing of Anna Madrigal. She had such a varied and incredible life to look back on—more so than most. She was born and raised in a brothel, escaped to San Francisco, and underwent early gender alteration surgery. She pioneered a life lived on her own terms. Now she and her loved ones (both on the page and holding the pages) must say good-bye.  For all the love, and joy that Mrs. Madrigal has brought him and others for the last 40 years, Maupin wrote one of the most beautiful death scenes ever committed to paper. May we all be so lucky to be as loved.

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