Wednesday, October 9, 2013

When we were young and our Mood Rings were blue...

National Coming Out Day is October 11th, and I'm only about halfway through my current read, so YAY survey/synopsis!

I'll preface this by saying I had never heard of this series until TV guide spotlighted the PBS premier of the mini-series based on book 1, Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. I watched the series, and wound up enraptured by the full on 70's in California story. As I recall, I had an appointment with my shrink in Dayton not long after, and wound up buying the first three books at the old Books & Company I'd visit after sessions.

The story starts with Mary Ann Singleton, on vacation in San Francisco from Cleveland, calling home and explaining to her parents that she's decided to stay in San Francisco. A few chapters later, after taking us shopping at Safeway for more than veggies, Mary ann winds up moving in to 28 Barbary Lane on Russian Hill, under the management of one Mrs. Anna Madrigal. Along with the other tenants; Brian, the straight himbo who waits tables at Perry's and Mona Ramsey, an aging hippie who works at Halcyon as an advertising executive, a sort of family forms. As the novel progresses, we meet Michael, Mona's new roommate, who's ex boyfriend Mary Ann tried to pick up at the Safeway. We also meet Norman Neil Williams, who has the roof apartment and sells vitamins.

By the end of the first book, Mary Ann has had an affair with Beauchamp Day, who is married to her boss's daughter, DeDe. Beauchamp has also been screwing around with Michael's on again, off again lover, Jon Fielding, who's also DeDe's gynecologist. (DeDe gets knocked up by the Asian grocery delivery boy.) DeDe's father, Edgar, has been having an affair of his own with Mrs. Madrigal, even if he doesn't like her marijuana habits. (She has plants growing in the yard with names like Barbara Stanwyck. She also has joints at the ready for all of her "children".) Mona has moved in with D'orothea, an African American model, but that ends in disaster when Mona invites D'or parents to Christmas dinner. Brian, in the meantime, has hooked up with several women. (As a character, he really doesn't grow much until the next book.) Oh, and Mary Ann has found out Norman Neil Williams has been investigating Mrs. Madrigal, stars in child porn, and manages to drop him off a cliff.

 The next two books expand on these characters. More Tales of the City starts with Mary Ann and Michael on a cruise and ends with a cannibal Episcopal cult. Further Tales of the City winds up with a bunch of Jim Jones in Guyana aftermath. (Given I read this one before I had ever been on the internet, I had to do a bit of research. I was familiar with some of it, but there's a heck of a lot involved.)

Now, to a high school senior dealing with a bunch of issues related to coming out, these books were awesome. Gay characters abounded, and a virtual array of possibilities were explored by pretty much everyone. Plus there's an awesome letter that Michael writes to his mother during the Anita Bryant affairs. They gave hope to a fairly lonely gay young man who had a few issues of his own at the time.

I didn't pick up the next three books until my sophomore year in college. See, book 3 ends right on the cusp of the time that so many gay men in San Francisco started getting odd cancers. Book 4, Babycakes, picks up after AIDS has pretty much destroyed gay life as portrayed in the previous books. I cried for about 30 minutes after starting, since it seems Jon died between books. Out of all of the things in the series, having Jon die off screen was probably the one thing that made me angry. Anyway, Significant Others and Sure of You round out the next three books. Which basically turn Mary Ann into a shrew. After she marries Brian,things...don't go well. They have a kid via adoption, but Mary Ann, who becomes something of a TV personality. We see Michael not only survive AIDS, but thrive as a gay man entering his 40's. And fall in love again. We see Mrs. Madrigal growing older. We learn that everything changes over time. And we end in 1989.

Which, as I read these in 1996, I was really upset by the way things ended. I mean, on one hand, Michael, to me and so many other gay men, was proof that we're not alone in our feelings of insecurity and that we can survive just about everything. But when Mary Ann ceases to be a likable character, it's a bit like losing an old friend. And given that book 6 was the last in the series for quite some time...

Then 2007 rolled in and Michael Tolliver Lives hit the shelves. It was a bit different than what preceded it, since it was written in first person. We see Brian and Mary Ann's daughter all grown up, meet a trans man, and see Michael who's survived AIDS and the dot-com boom as he tries to choose between his biological family and his family of choice. We also meet Mary Ann again, living in Connecticut, and find out a bit of what happened to her after 28 years or so. In the end, Michael's decisions make sense and hit right in the feels.

And in 2010, Mary Ann in Autumn brought us back to San Francisco, again with the multiple perspectives, and added some closure on one very old plotline in the process. We deal with Mary Ann's fear for her health, and her attempts to fix relationships she messed up years ago.

These two did much to repair the anger I felt after Sure of You. It was almost like a reunion of sorts, where you find that tiem healed a bunch of wounds you'd forgotten you had.

And now, I get to add The Days of Anna Madrigal to my watch list, since it will be the last. Sort of a trilogy of trilogies, I guess. It's going to be odd realizing that this will probably be the last time we see a family that's been around in fiction for 35 years, but it helps that the final act has rectified some of the worst moments of earlier years. I only hope that we get a happy ending, or at least one that is fulfilling here.