May 29, 2018

Tales of the City: Gay Guys, San Francisco, Who Cares?

Year after year, people tell me "The Tales of the City books are stupendous!  Amazing!  Wonderful!  The best thing every written!"

"And they're historically vital!  Gay author Armistead Maupin originally published them in serial form in the San Francisco Chronicle, back when gay characters were unheard-of in mainstream literature!"

"And you lived in San Francisco! They will resonate strongly with your experiences!"

"And they're hilarious!  You've never laughed so much in your life!  You'll love them!"

So, again and again, I pick up the first volume, Tales of the City (1978).  Midwesterner Mary Anne Singleton comes to San Francisco on vacation, converses with her old college friend Mona Ramsey, and decides to stay.

This is not the least bit humorous.  It's dull, dull, dull!

She moves into 28 Barbary Lane, where her free-spirit landlady, Anna Madrigal, tells her, "My dear, I'm not opposed to anything," and gives her a marijuana joint as a housewarming gift.  Mary Anne is determined not to be shocked.

My life in San Francisco was nothing like this!

She goes shopping, sees two guys, and wonders if they might be gay.  She's determined not to be shocked, if they are.

Maupin eases into the revelation of their gayness.   I guess he had to be very, very careful, writing for heterosexuals in the 1970s.

I can't go on.  I'm so very, very, very bored.

But sooner or later someone will start praising the books again, and I'll try again.

I already know what happens next: Mary Ann befriends a gay man named Mouse.  He starts dating A-gay gynecologist Jon Fielding, who is dying, Mona Ramsey dates D'Orothea Wilson, and Mary Anne has an affair with Beauchamp Day. Anna Madrigal turns out to be a MTF transwoman, who has an affair with Beauchamp's father-in-law, who is dying.

Got all that?

 Through eight books and thirty years, Mary Ann, Mouse, and their huge group of friends encounter angst and tragedy as life hits them with unemployment, failed romances, homophobia, transphobia, death -- lots of death -- and AIDS -- lots of AIDS.

This by you is humor?

More recently, the characters have been getting way old -- like, they remember the 1960s old -- and starting to ruminate on their mortality.  Yes, they are going to die.  So am I.  Why would I want to read about it?

Why would anyone think it was funny?

The tv miniseries (1993, 1998, 2001) were a bit more palatable, maybe because they were not so episodic, and they got into the gay characters right away, instead of hinting around for weeks and weeks.

Besides, there were naked guys. (Pictured: Thomas Gibson as Beauchamp Day.)

I can't think of any other reason to care about Tales of the City 


  1. Sounds depressing. Unemployment, prejudice, AIDS...When you look at it that way, Rent is amazing for the audience being able leave without severe, crippling depression. (Then again, La Boheme was the same, substitute AIDS with TB.)

    San Francisco as seen in a 1971 Mad magazine. No, your landlady won't give you weed. They have to hate drugs, because if the DEA finds drugs, that's it, property seized. Not even a hint of due process, unconstitutional though it might be. And no, there isn't any way to beat around the bush about two guys being gay. Maybe it's just because the spectrum of sexual orientation is normal for my generation?

    1. It takes forever for Michael/Mouse to come out to Mary Ann, which is understandable as a plot device, since Maupin was getting paid by the word, and playing the "is he or isn't he?" game with his 1970s readers.


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