Picture it: San Francisco, 1976. Big hair and hedonism, disco dancefloors and decadence.
Armistead Maupin chronicled life in San Francisco in the 1970s in his newspaper column, and then in a series of captivating novels centered around the bohemian homestead of 28 Barbary Lane, high on Russian Hill.
It’s the home of one of the most fascinating and ingenious characters in modern fiction, garden-variety landlady Mrs. Madrigal, the enigmatic Earth Mother who views the world from a unique perspective, embodying both yin and yang. Whether she’s wafting around in a kimono and a cloud of smoke, or out-facing an adversary with the steely gaze of a gunslinger, she shines like a beacon as the disposessed are washed up at the gates of number 28.
Four years ago, one of my best friends gave me the complete set of novels, which became an instant addiction. Maupin was describing a golden age in the first three novels, which are rich, warm and humorous, humanitarian like Dickens, with a dark undercurrent straight from classic Hitchcock. The first great mystery in Tales of the City is Anna Madrigal herself. The name’s an anagram: a key to the door of her secret past…
Arguably the pivotal quote from the entire series is where Mrs. Madrigal refers to the logical family, as opposed to the biological, and here we see how gay people, rejected by their families, adapt in the face of homophobia. This forms the firm foundation on which the wonderful world of Barbary Lane is built. Maupin has talked about emotional reactions from fans at book signings and as strange as it sounds, it highlights the serious lack of positive depictions of gay people in popular culture, and how he threw us all a line. No one was writing about aspirational happy characters, and there were consequently no real gay role models.
He also deals with subjects like racism, and religious zeal with wit and ingenuity, and then he stands back and lets the bigots have it with both barrels. Maupin was the last American serviceman to leave Vietnam and the first mainstream author to write about Aids, as a major character dies in one of the early novels before the advent of drug therapy.
Maupin captures the natural rhythms of speech and observes human behaviour so acutely that he adds a whole dimension of realism that few authors can achieve, one of the reasons for his phenomenal success and the enduring love for his characters over the years.
On May 26th it will be 36 years since the first Tales of the City column appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle and more than a quarter century later, we have e-books, three epic TV mini series and a musical. Stay tuned for more about the Tales of the City series…
Check out my trip to San Francisco
Armistead Maupin on Facebook
Here’s an update for you: we’ve been visited by the man himself! Scroll down to comments…