I don’t think there’s a homosexual alive of my generation who doesn’t love Maupin’s Tales of the City series. I only discovered them when the first was adapted into a miniseries (for shame), but of course, like every gay boy, I then read them and took the character of Mouse as my spiritual guide. But I loved the books in spite of their flaws. There was noticeable decline in quality as the series marched through six entries. I was always taken aback at how artlessly Maupin shoehorned in the necessary info to each later novel for those who haven’t read any of the others. First of all, why would you bother to start a series of books half way through? Secondly, there are surely better ways to do it than regurgitating whole chunks of the previous books. But then after eighteen years, Maupin redeemed himself eternally and permanently with Michael Tolliver Lives!, an absolute joy of a book. Maybe he always planned it, maybe not, but Maupin continues the coda for his beloved characters with Mary Ann In Autumn.
Mary Ann Singleton is a divisive character. She started out gorgeously sweet and naive, but for some, she quickly became into a godawful pain in the bum, and horribly unpleasant with it by the time the original series drew to its conclusion. I don’t remember disliking her and we pick back up again with Mary Ann staring down the barrel of a cancer mandated hysterectomy, another divorce, and far worse, old age. She returns to San Francisco and to Mouse to have her surgery. All the other favourites are present and correct, with Shawna, Jake and of course Anna Madrigal all swirling around with their own plots and sub-plots. Funnily enough, Maupin weaves all the backstory you need to know into each plot line with a deft and skilful touch, and I could have actually used more! It’s been so long since I read the original books that some of the machinations remained opaque to me. And one particular, crucial plot point feels very forced.
But those are minor quibbles. These books were never about being believable, they were about larger than life characters you fell in love with and the silly shit they got up to. Mary Ann In Autumn is full of them and they’re mostly fabulous. For the first time, I understood what it was about our titular heroine that drove people so insane with fury. The way she handles her impending divorce hardly covers her in glory, even if she IS the cheated on, rather than the cheater. But she’s a fully rounded, realistic, three dimensional creation, if she weren’t, nobody would care so much.
It’s somewhat daring that Maupin chooses, nearly thirty years on, to resolve a cliffhanger (literally, it turns out) from the first book in the series. It take this entry into a darker place than you’d expect towards the end, but you know what they say. It’s always darkest just before the dawn. The final pages are as bright and sunny as anything you could possibly want to read. Sometimes, when series are resurrected after long gaps, detractors will bang on about creative and literal bankruptcy being the twin reasons for doing so. Whether the latter had anything to do with it I neither know nor care because I can’t accuse him of the former. The later Tales books are leaps and bounds better than their predecessors and the ninth and final entry, The Days Of Anna Madrigal is published next month. The countdown starts here. And then, if Jake could get his own spin off novel, that would be just great.