In Tales of the City_,Armistead Maupin turned to an age-old device for his portrait of mid-‘70s San Francisco: the cluelessoutsider to whom everything is fresh and exotic, and to whom many things must be explained (providing a slick excuse for lots of exposition that would otherwise be cumbersome). Thus wholesome Mary Ann arrives from the Midwest (or possibly from Gilligan’s Island, but to show that she is not a complete rube, Maupin contrasts her with an even more clueless newbie, the high-school friend who has preceded her to Babylon on the Bay and at whose pad she briefly crashes:
Mary Ann dragged her American Tourister into Connie’s apartment, groaned softly, and sank into a mock zebra-skin captain’s chair.
Thirty seconds later, Connie emerged from the kitchen with two airline glasses and a bottle of Banana Cow. She poured a drink for Mary Ann. Mary Ann sipped warily.
Well, look at all this! You’re practically a native, aren’t you? It’s—quite something.”
‘Quite something’ was the best she could manage. Connie’s apartment was a potpourri of plastic Tiffany lamps and ankle-deep shag carpeting, needlepoint Snoopy pictures and “Hang in there, baby” kitten posters, monkey-pawed salad sets and macramé plant hangers, and (“Please, no!” thought Mary Ann) a Pet Rock.
“I’ve been lucky,” Connie beamed. Being a stew and all, well, you can pick up a lot of art objects in your travels “
“Hmmm.” Mary Ann wondered if Connie regarded her black velvet bullfighter painting as an art object.
Even for someone who was just a kid at the time, this catalogue evokes a flood of sweet-and-sour memories. If I didn’t know that Maupin was writing a contemporary chronicle (TOTC originally appeared as a newspaper serial), I would suspect him of succumbing to the over-the-top fetishism of period detail that is the bugbear of so many historical novelists and filmmakers. There is also a kind of secondary nostalgia for me in the portrait of pre-AIDS gay culture, from wealthy older camp queens to closeted professionals to young men trying to combine the freedom of the bath-house with the search for true love. This is a world of which I of course knew nothing, and probably Maupin was counting on shocking many readers, but in this post-Edmund White era it seems almost cozily familiar.
Beyond the mood rings and fern bars, the Dynamints and amyl nitrate, TOTC and its sequels (of which I have only read More Tales of the City) belong essentially to the genre of sitcom, or perhaps dramedy. The plot is episodic, though with some persistent arcs, the action centers on a single set (28 Barbary Lane) where the four cameras can be set up, and there is a slightly surreal Friends-like quality to the cultural and economic atmosphere (how many baristas live in swank Manhattan apartments?). For example, Michael has been unemployed for quite a while and is surely without health insurance (his only visible means of support is $100 that he won in a jockey-shorts dance contest). But when he develops a wasting disease, he is able to spend many weeks in the hospital, and nobody ever raises the question of how he can afford this.
The world of 28 Barbary Lane is also reminiscent of Friends in its combination of the hip and the bourgie (Mary Ann comes into some money and spends it on a luxury cruise to Acapulco) and its apolitical tone (it’s hard to imagine that any of the tenants bother to vote in the 1976 election). In this connection, I was interested to learn from Maupin’s Wikipedia page that, before going West, he worked as a reporter for a TV station in North Carolina, where he was a protégé of station owner Jesse Helms. You can see how that trajectory might lead to a complex mixture of attitudes.