Michael Tol­liver back, at curious peace

Michael Tol­liver Lives By Ar­mis­tead Maupin Dou­ble­day, 279pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cathy Peake

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.

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