We are past the halfway mark in Armistead Maupin’s vivid and charming memoir before he explains how his “Tales of the City” came into being.
As “Tales” fans know, the stories about an ever-expanding odd lot of San Francisco residents began as a newspaper serial and became a nine-volume print bestseller and a PBS miniseries.
Long before that came a North Carolina childhood, a run as a young conservative, service in Vietnam — experiences seemingly at odds with the writer who became a literary celebrity and gay-rights spokester.
Maupin’s true-life tale bears stylistic trademarks that made his fiction popular: a knack for memorable characters, a humorous outlook even in the face of serious topics (wars, AIDS, life in the closet) and a heart-on-sleeve willingness to jerk a few tears and sprinkle plenty of fairy dust.
He peppers the long arc of his 72 years with the snappy skill of a seasoned, deadline-driven vignettist.
He grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. His mother doted on him. His father, a snobby, bourbon-swilling lawyer who freely used the “n” word in his profane, right-wing tirades, was classified euphemistically as “unreconstructed,” as opposed to merely racist.
When he was young, Maupin loved antiques, reading and movies and was clumsy at sports. In short, a budding gay man, but one who remained on the down-low for years.
“I knew I was mentally ill,” Maupin recalls of the fact that “by the time I was 13, I had begun to have dreams about kissing grown-up gas-station attendants.”
Maupin emerged in college as a “bold, conservative freedom fighter” partly to please (appease?) his father. In columns he wrote for the school paper, Maupin derided peaceniks and lefties. He defended segregation.
Maupin’s boss at an early job as a TV reporter was none other than Jesse Helms, the notorious right-winger who became a five-term U.S. senator from North Carolina.
The horrors of Vietnam are largely absent in Maupin’s fond, even romantic account of his time there as a communications officer in the Navy.
He “ships out” in a Braniff airliner that is staffed with Pucci-wearing stewardesses. He gets to wear a “snappy black beret” and parties all night long with the son of Adm. Elmo Zumwalt.
A memorable set piece takes Maupin to a remote mountain radio post where two U.S. soldiers, each with a Vietnamese girlfriend, live almost off the grid, “quite happy in their sandbagged Shangri-La.”
From this elevated outpost, “as the sun began to set, I saw the Vinh Te Canal become a fine blue pencil line across the landscape, the rice paddies a patchwork of shimmering green-gold mirrors that stretched all the way to the dark mountains of Cambodia.”
It wasn’t Vietnam that liberalized Maupin, but San Francisco. He moved there for a job with the Associated Press in the early 1970s, just as the city was becoming a magnet for every kind of social change movement. Maupin hit some of the town’s 50 gay bars and found himself fundamentally changed by his coming-out, which included meeting men at San Francisco’s many gay bathhouses: “It must be said that if anything delivered me from the privileged white elitism of my youth it was the red-lit cubicles and darkened hallways and even darker mazes of Dave’s Baths.”
The city on the bay, with its mix of old guard and new arrivals, also provided Maupin with prototypes for Mary Ann Singleton, Michael Tolliver, Anna Madrigal and other characters he introduced in 1976 at the rate of 800 words a day in the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Logical Family” falls off a bit at the end, as Maupin interrupts himself with name-dropping anecdotes and perhaps too much about seeking to make peace with his parents, but his memoir is never less than engaging.
by Armistead Maupin
Harper (289 pages)
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