‘Older and perhaps wiser, but still as friendly and fun-loving as ever’ – Mary-Ann In Autumn by Armistead Maupin

Thirty-six years have slipped by since Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City series started running, first in The Pacific Sun, then transferring a couple of years later to the San Francisco Chronicle. The novels followed from 1978, with six contained chronicles in the saga publishing over the next decade (Tales Of The City, 1978; More Tales Of The City, 1980; Further Tales Of The City, 1982; Babycakes, 1984; Significant Others, 1987; Sure Of You, 1989).

Then it all went quiet with the erstwhile 28 Barbary Lane residents – Mary Ann Singleton, Michael Tolliver, Mona Ramsey, Brian Hawkins and, of course, the inimitable Anna Madrigal – at least as dead-tree versions go (though there was an inevitable early-90s TV offshoot). Suddenly, in 2007, there was a tremor of excitement followed by a whimper of slight disappointment with Michael Tolliver Lives, which gave ‘Mouse’ his own first-person voice and focused less on the original characters (or, at least, made some of them out to be damaged goods) and more on the sometimes somewhat self-absorbed adopted San Franner.

Now we have Mary Ann In Autumn, subtitled ‘a Tales Of The City novel‘, and the balance is back, with old favourites (who couldn’t be pleased to find themselves reacquainted with DeDe Halcyon and her lesbian lover D’Or?) integrating pretty well with the newer kids on the block (Ben, Jake and Shawna). The changes are part of the big picture, part of the process of life carrying on, despite losing a few along the way (Mona, Jon…), and while the younger people start off naturally suspicious of the older folk popping up again (and largely, they presume, with ulterior motives), their eventual acceptance takes us right back to the start of the series, when the out-of-towners were always welcomed as part of the Russian Hill ‘family‘.

Equilibrium is also re-established by a swing back to having more women characters – Michael Tolliver Lives homed in on Michael and his new husband Ben, his female-to-male transitioning business partner Jake Greenleaf and his fucked-up Florida-living brother. Mrs Madrigal might be old and frail now, but she still plays a central role in the lives of the people she touches, while Shawna’s reach is even wider with her popular ‘say-it-how-it-is’ post-feminist ‘Grrrl On The Loose’ blog. Another colourful character back with a vibrant vengeance is San Francisco, older and perhaps wiser, but still as friendly and fun-loving as ever.

Mary Ann also inches her way back up into the limelight after a slightly dismissive appearance in MTL. She was always at the centre of the original Tales, but in this eponymous novel her portrayal (at least through the eyes of Michael’s husband Ben, Anna’s companion and roommate Jake, and Mary Ann and Brian’s adopted daughter Shawna) is much nastier than I ever remember. I hark back to the cutely naive, conservative-with-a-small-c Cleveland girl’s arrival in SF in the first novel, of course, not the go-getting woman who blindly runs off to the East Coast to pursue an anchorwoman dream and escape the grounding, unexciting reality of a husband and child. Okay, so I’m guilty of wearing rose-tinted glasses, but in an interview with LA Times book editor David L Ulin, Maupin does admit he perhaps took his own self-flagellation out on the tourist-turned-TV host.

‘I was still a little grumpy about her. She got much nastier than I expected before I was finished with the series. Basically, I think, she was the incarnation of my darker, more ambitious side. And she was leaving San Francisco at the same time I was leaving the series. So I could talk about my own so-called betrayal in that way.’

Mary Ann’s comeuppance for sweeping aside her true friends is finding herself in ‘the autumn of her years’ (hence why it’s not called Mary Ann In Fall, which had me stumped for a while) with a failed career, a second marriage on the rocks and ovarian cancer – and no one to turn to after her life coach really rains on her parade. Of course, this is the catalyst for her return, albeit with her tail between her legs, and her chance for redemption with those she left behind, including, presumably, Maupin himself.

This reconciliation is reflected in the tone, back on lighter form after some rather depressing incidents as the series progressed (including ‘the first AIDS fatality in fiction’, as Maupin notes in that interview, in Babycakes), and the conscious kitschy clichés and quick-fire conversations are here in spades. With the same self-confident style of the original books, words, phrases and trends du jour are scattered liberally throughout; it’s not long before the first references to Facebook, Twitter and Skype crop up. I’m not sure what those new to Maupin will make of his glib and often vacuous treatment of political hot potatoes (gay marriage, for one) and difficult topics (disease, drug abuse, homelessness and suicide are just the tip of the serious subject iceberg glossed over with sassy repartee and unrealistic reactions), but for returning readers, it’s a welcome return to business as usual.

It’s clever, too, with a real pace to the interlinked stories, and plenty of clues to the denouement, along with a kind of running joke that becomes increasingly evident towards the end – so much so that once you see it, it’s so silly, you can see Maupin laughing. He’s obviously forgiven Mary Ann for her woeful conformist mid-life ‘crisis’, and the book ends with a swift, chipper chapter, which (although it feels a little tagged-on) serves as the moral of the story: it proves Mary Ann has learnt something in her brief stay back in San Francisco with the friends she left behind. What she has discovered, or more to the point rediscovered, is that life’s too short not to have fun. Maybe at 57, that’s just the lesson she needed to learn.

Any cop? Mary Ann In Autumn marks a welcome return to the San Francisco-based Tales Of The City of the early days, with the fog lifted and laughs a-plenty.

Sarah-Clare Conlon

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