Michael Tolliver back, at curious peace
Michael Tolliver Lives By Armistead Maupin Doubleday, 279pp, $ 32.95
TOWARDS the end of Michael Tolliver Lives, the narrator and his husband find themselves at the airport waiting for the ‘‘ red- eye’’ to Florida to visit Mama Tolliver on her death bed. But the trip is abandoned minutes before boarding when Michael learns that his landlady from 28 Barbary Lane, Anna Madrigal, has had a heart attack.
Twenty- eight Barbary Lane — made famous in Tales of the City, a series to which Michael Tolliver Lives does not belong, but rather constitutes a sort of postscript — has changed beyond recognition. Some of its former tenants still prosper, for the most part, in San Francisco and the beguiling, transgendered Anna Madrigal, now 85, continues to exert a ‘‘ radiant and mysterious’’ presence in this new diaspora.
Anna is the matriarch of what Michael refers to as his ‘‘ logical family’’ and the chief demystifier of the gay world that, with all its permutations and anxieties, sits centre stage in Armistead Maupin’s writing. Her crisis is the flashpoint in Michael’s enduring conflict between his biological and logical family.
If much has changed since Tales of the City, many things have not, and it is no surprise that it is the logical family who claim his time and his commitment. Now in his mid- 50s, a gardener, and living with HIV, Michael has survived his widely anticipated death through improved drug cocktails, regular shots of testosterone and Viagra. ‘‘ In my best moments,’’ he claims, ‘‘ I’m filled with a curious peace, an almost passable impersonation of how it used to be.’’ But there is also something fragile about this new state of affairs. Living now calls ever more insistently upon his resources of wit and compassion, and for more than a little hustling and feistiness.
His reflective, often anguished attitude to middle age and death — ‘‘ My life, whatever its duration, is still a lurching, lopsided contraption held together by chewing gum and bailing wire’’ — is another theme to which he returns frequently. These feelings are exaggerated and also made easier by the presence of his ‘‘ straight ahead’’ husband Ben. ‘‘ Twenty- one years younger than I am; an entire adult younger, if you must insist on looking at it that way,’’ he says.
If there are shades of the cute boy and the great man here, it is also true that this affectionate relationship never falters in the narrative, and it is Ben who helps him deal with his dying
fundamentalist mother in Florida and reaffirm his allegiance to Anna.
At home in Florida, the Tollivers have known their son is gay for 30 years. ‘‘ I wrote a letter to my mother in 1977 when she joined Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign, hoping against hope to save her own two sons from recruitment by homosexuals. The news that I was beyond saving — and happy as hell about it, thank you very much — was first met by silence, then by a lone pound cake that I chose to regard as an awkward step towards enlightenment.’’ Three decades later he reflects, ‘‘ My life had been conveniently reduced to a ‘ lifestyle’ — something easily separable from me, that they could abhor to their heart’s content without fear of being perceived as unchristian.’’
The list of what Michael cannot talk about with his biological family, ‘‘ phony Florida elections, secret American torture camps, intelligent design’’, grows larger all the time. The trouble is that while he has long ceased to care what they think about him, he continues to be vexed by the fact that he has never stopped accommodating their nonsense and making them all feel as comfortable as possible. It was, he says, a nasty old habit not easily broken. I’m a good boy and joke about speed boats and alligators and Mr Grady with the Drool Rag.’’
The skill and adroitness with which Maupin negotiates this fraught, complex territory is impressive. Much of his narrative is achieved through dialogue as his compassionate eye roams across the colourful characters who colonise his novel, and his wit lights up the confusions, the grand canyons of denial and, frequently, the sheer kindness, or absurdity of their interactions.
Respected for his candour and a benevolent matter- of- factness about gay life, Maupin’s spare, seamless fiction finds a way through everyday conflicts and draws the stories of his characters together in a world that is nearly cosy, but never sentimental. There is much humour here, and plenty of kitsch. There is also an almost evangelising insistence about the importance of emotional truth that reaches well beyond his subject matter.