MICHAEL TOLLIVER LIVES - Armistead Maupin


For any self-respecting gay man now in his...cough...mid-forties, Maupin's 'Tales Of The City' sequence of novels provided an essential road map through the hedonism of the late 70s through to the ultra-conservatism of the late 80s. All the novels deal with the big themes: love and death, family and friends against the background of one of the world's most fascinating cities, San Francisco. Maupin hasn't written about his little 'family' of characters since the publication of 'Sure Of You' back in 1988. Yes, some of characters have popped up in 'Maybe The Moon' and 'The Night Listener' but the publication of 'Michael Tollier Lives' which brings us up to date on their lives has been a long time coming. Maupin originally denied that this was a book in the 'Tales...' sequence but has since admitted that it jolly well is and is in fact preparing another book in the sequence.

What strikes you about this latest novel is the change from third person narrator to first person narrator. This is more in keeping with the style of 'Maybe...' and '...Listener' and for me it was the best decision he could have made. Michael Tolliver was always one of his most popular characters and to now be inside his head, reading his thoughts and asides, is such a blessing and a delight. Maupin could be accused of hi-jacking Michael for his own narrative ends - is this really Maupin's own story more than it is Michael's ? Well, duh, yeah.

Who cares when Maupin finally gets round to tackling the really big concern of all gay men hurtling towards their twilight years. And many of whom never imagined they would be here at all. For me, this is the great reward of the book for us old farts. It defends us older gay men to the hilt and focuses on...wait for it...romance! S'okay, Armistead hasn't gone all Barbara Cartland on us. He recognises, as do many of us older fellas, that the lives of older gay men really don't get touched upon these days and seem to have a little less value, culturally speaking. Gay culture is overly dominated by the young and the thin and anyone older than 25 or over size 0.5 is, well...old and fat. It's nice to have a redress to this particularly alienating legacy of 21st Century gay life.

This is a really lovely story of how Michael negotiates his love with new husband, Ben, whilst dealing with the many crises that tend to gather at particular moments in the lives of older gay men. The main issues that Maupin tackles here are 'family' and 'mortality'. Even though Michael is HIV positive and therefore has a very heightened sense of his own mortality many of his interior thoughts on getting old and eventually facing up to death certainly pushed all of my own buttons. Those that are dismissing this as a weak entry in the 'Tales' canon really are missing the point. This is a personal story and therefore can't be told in the usual multi-layered narrative manner of previous 'Tales...' books. Michael is talking directly to us and we are no longer the observers of Maupin's intertwining pieces of narrative. We're actually participating in it.

From a personal point of view, I absolutely connected with Michael's struggles and distance with his Christian-Southern family. His is a distance that echoes my own and it is very uncanny how family crises suddenly force you to reconnect when you really didn't want to. How Michael handles both the death of his mother and the near-death of a close friend frighteningly echoed some recent events in my own life. His marriage to Ben and the boundaries they set themselves within and without the relationship are also fascinating observations of how gay men take on their roles as husbands. Mind you, I envy their sex lives!

It does treat the other 'Tales' characters with a little less integrity. Anna is her usual magisterial self. I can no longer read her dialogue without now picturing the brilliant Olympia Dukakis, who played her in the three series. I can just hear her voice as I read. Again, Maupin brings us an older Anna in his determination to show how people like you and me and unlike you and me will possible negotiate old age, ill health and infirmity. It is at once depressing and exhilarating. However, Maupin unforgivably, in my opinion, kills off one of the main characters ' off screen' as it were. Yes, I can see it as a further development of the 'mortality' theme but its perhaps going a little too far in this instance.

The novel is a reassuring paen to family - whatever that constitutes for you - and friends (I liked the FTM Jake and the other trans characters that become attached to Anna) and that you create your own family in certain circumstances. And most importantly you cherish growing old with those that remain. It is all about your choice of a 'logical' family over a 'biological' family and many may find that choice rather cruel in the context that Michael experiences it but it is none the less vitally true and a choice many gay, lesbian and trans people keep having to make.

Michael Tolliver Lives - Armistead Maupin (Doubleday ISBN-13: 978-0385612401)

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