The Days of Anna Madrigal, the ninth and final volume of Armistead Maupin's series (begun in 1978 as a newspaper serial), will be published on January 21. It tells the story of Anna Madrigal -- the transgendered, dope-growing, meddling, lovable landlady of 28 Barbary Lane -- visiting Burning Man for the first time, at 92 years of age.
I grew up on the Tales books, and when I moved to San Francisco, I was delighted to see so many of the places and scenes from the novels playing out in real life (as I mentioned in my recent review of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Maupin's books chronicle an age of personal and political activism that seems unimaginably far behind us today).
The serial format served Maupin well, making for a story that's so compulsively readable by dint of the need to finish each thousand words with a cliff-hanger -- shades of Dickens -- that it's nearly impossible to stop reading them. Each subplot is firmly grounded in its moment, through topical references and subplots revolving around everything from Jonestown to AIDS, that re-reading them is something like inhaling a stack of Doonesbury treasuries.
It's been too long since Maupin gave us another glimpse at Anna and Michael and the rest of the people in the orbit of 28 Barbary Lane. I can't wait to read it (and I dread being finished with it).
But however outlandish his characters and their adventures, Maupin's world always feels curiously wholesome. Perhaps that's because everything in the Tales has been taken directly from his own very contented life. Luckily, it's a life that seems to attract enough colour to keep the stories rollicking along with ease.
There was an affair with the Hollywood movie star Rock Hudson, for example, who was coyly "named" in the Tales with a line of blank spaces. A name effaced in print then, but later unforgettable when he became one of the first celebrities to speak publicly about having Aids. Hudson died in 1985, a year after Maupin published Babycakes, a novel widely regarded as the first work of fiction to address the crisis.
Maupin's most famous character and the most obvious authorial alter ego is the meek naif Michael "Mouse" Tolliver. It was through him, in fact, that Maupin came out to his parents. In the second book, 1980's More Tales of the City, Tolliver writes a letter to his mother and father telling them he's gay; Maupin knew that his parents, subscribers to the Chronicle, would read it. Maupin Senior went on to lovingly accept his son as a gay man while Maupin himself has gladly accepted his role as a very visible gay icon.
"I realised," he said, "that part of my function was to be very clear and very public as a gay man. I'm prouder of that than anything else I've done."
The Days of Anna Madrigal [Amazon]
Armistead Maupin: San Francisco's chronicler calls time on his saga [Hermione Hoby/The Guardian]