Book Review: Michael Tolliver Lives

This is “my favorite book series” week.  Armistead Maupin returns to familiar ground with Michael Tolliver Lives (2007), catching up with the characters from his Tales of the City series.  The differences here are that while Tales centered around Mary Ann Singleton — starting with her arrival in San Francisco and ending with her departure for New York — this book is about the character Maupin himself identifies with most, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver.   While the earlier series is addressed by an omniscient narrator, this new volume is written in first person by Michael Tolliver himself.

The basic premise of the book is that 20 years ago when the series ended one could reasonably assume that Michael Tolliver’s days were numbered because he was HIV+.  Yet, in real life many people who were sick and dying found their lives extended by the drug cocktails that debuted in the 1990’s.  And so it is with Michael, who is not only alive and well but facing middle age and the prospect of dying from old age.  He keeps in touch with his youth through Ben, 21 years younger, but fully in love and devoted to Michael.  In fact they married at San Francisco’s City Hall.  At the other extreme, Michael needs to deal with the mortality of his conservative Christian mother in Florida and his former landlady and mentor Anna Madrigal.  Much of the story involves the choices Michael must make between the biological and the logical family.  Readers get to meet Michael’s extended family for the first time, and Maupin captures them in a nuanced, non-stereotypical way while at the same time not making excuses for them.

The book lacks the juice provided by the omniscient narrator in Tales of the City books as well as the quick and witty, almost script-like dialog.   On the other hand, Michael Tolliver Lives benefits from not being as over the top and ridiculous as those books could be, creating a quieter, more introspective novel.  All the surviving characters from Tales of the City — Anna, Brian, and Mary Ann — put in an appearance and do so in a logical plot-friendly manner.  New characters such as Ben, Brian’s daughter Shawna (a baby in Tales), and Jake add a “life goes on” element and new ways to explore the human character of San Francisco (oddly the city’s presence is not as strong as in the other books).

For Tales of the City fans this is a must-read, and for anyone else it’s worth checking out.   I’ve read all of Maupin’s books including Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener, but he’s best when writing about old friends.

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