It's not surprising that Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City was first serialized in The San Francisco Chronicle. The story is made up of short chapters that are episodic in nature and have cliff hanger endings that leave the reader curious for more. This was an undemanding read in that it moved swiftly and easily yet at the same time demanded my attention to find out just how the many dramas that began with the arrival of Mary Ann Singleton would untangle themselves by story's end. It's both light hearted and serious, or I should say that matters of the heart and of identity and all the other myriad problems that come with being an adult are treated in a way that make you smile yet tug inside just a little bit because they are problems that are so readily identifiable.
"I remember this guy. He usually dressed like a clone in flannel shirts and Levi's 501s, so he must have thought that a loosened knit tie would make him look more journalistic. He had just moved into a cottage in the Castro, having bounced between Russian and Telegraph Hills for most of the Seventies. For five years, off and on, he'd been writing a column for the morning newspaper that was, in effect, a story without ending. He wrote columns on carbon paper, keeping one copy and delivering the other to the newspaper office, often in a frantic last-minute dash in his Volkswagen convertible. There were times when he was barely two days ahead of his readers. Like them, he was waiting breathlessly for what would happen next--but counting on his life to provide it." (From an essay by Maupin in the addition material at the end of the story).
This story without ending is spread out over eight books, and while the ending of Tales of the City is satisfying enough to tide me over for a while, I do plan on picking up More Tales of the City eventually. Mary Anne Singleton is but one of a large cast of characters, mostly interrelated in some way with each other. What is it one character says in the story...no one is actually from San Francisco... But San Francisco is certainly one of the most loved and vibrant characters in the novel. Mary Anne is from Cleveland and after a short stay, where she feels already so at home, she decides to stay.
"She came to the city alone for an eight-day vacation. On the fifth night, she drank three Irish coffees at the Buena Vista, realized that her Mood Ring was blue, and decided to phone her mother in Cleveland."
She moves to 28 Barbary Lane and tries to make her way in the world, or at least in the city of San Francisco. Whether she accomplishes this or not is at times questionable. You know that famous opening line, "The past is another country. They do things differently there"? That couldn't be more true than in Tales of the City. The story is steeped in the culture of the place and the era of the 1970s. From the welcome note (complete with a joint) taped to Mary Anne's door from the mysterious landlady Anna Madrigal, to using both the local supermarket and laundromat as pick up spots, to cross-dressing nuns on roller skates at Halloween, cultural markers abound. You always know where you are, and there is something sort of comforting in that even if the world is so very different now.
Anna Madrigal is the thread that connects the varying characters. The daughter of a prostitute, she grew up in a whorehouse but has taken on a new identity. She is a woman of secrecy and with a past. A past that isn't completely revealed by story's end. She's a groovy, and very hip mother-figure to (most of) the residents of 28 Barbary Lane. There's liberal Mona who lets her good friend Michael (or as she calls him--Mouse) crash in her apartment after a messy break up. Brian is the local lothario but without much luck with women. He has more in common with Michael than he thinks since Michael isn't having much luck with men either.
There's lots about the trials and tribulations of relationships, which actually makes up the bulk of the story since everyone seems to be hooking up or trying to at least. Mona and Mary Ann work in a family run advertising agency, which shows a different side of San Francisco entirely--the monied side. But in the end the characters' lives are inextricably linked together creating a panoramic view of the city and its inhabitants.
All in all it was a very enjoyable read. I was thinking that it would be fun to read More Tales of the City after I've visited San Francisco and have more of a sense of what it's actually like there. Surely some remnants of the city as portrayed in these pages must still exist? I'm hoping to read Dashiell Hammett's The Continental Op, which will give me a different view of San Francisco, I'm sure. I'm busily trying to finish a few other books, however, so I don't expect to start reading properly until next month. Not sure if I can squeeze in any other San Francisco reads, but you never know. Tales of the City, though, has certainly put me in the mood to finally visit San Francisco.
By the way--I love the cover of the original dust jacket of Tales of the City, which I had to share above. It's a pity they don't still use it as it fits the story so well.