Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tales of the City by Amistead Maupin

In 1976, a groundbreaking serial called Tales of the City first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. This masterfully rendered portrait of the interweaving relationships of the inhabitants of 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco's Russian Hill was both an instant smash and a source of controversy as it paid particular mind to the city's strong gay community. In spite of naysayers, Tales of the City attracted a legion of devoted followers. Readers of the Chronicle were known to Xerox copies of the stories and pass them on to friends. Tales of the City themed scavenger hunts were held throughout San Francisco. A local pub even named a drink after one of the serial's protagonists, Anna Madrigal. In 1978, a collection of the stories were gathered together into an extremely popular volume. Most important of all, Tales of the City became a watershed work of gay literature. (from author bio @ Barnes and

As a librarian, I probably shouldn't admit that up until I saw this post by Keris Stainton (blogger and YA author extraordinaire) I was not familiar with Tales of the City.   But since Keris referred to it as one of her favorite books, I needed to see what I was missing.  I got a bit of a surprise - as in, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas any more." - but was intrigued enough to now want to read the entire series. 

1976, seen through the residents of 28 Barbary Lane, San Francisco, was a world apart from the 1976 I experienced as a high-school student in Kansas!  As you can imagine, my conservative, midwest life made parts of this story disquieting for me, but I learned a lesson about human nature.  The story begins with Mary Ann Singleton, twenty-five-year-old secretary from Cleveland, who shocks her parents by moving to San Francisco.  The tale expands to embrace the interwoven lives of the residents of the apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane, their friends, co-workers and lovers. 

This is the bohemian, free-love world of the Haight/Ashbury era. At first it seems freeing, but after a while the acceptance is revealed to be a facade. The "to each his own" or "I'm ok/You're ok" attitude eventually gives way to a common goal.  Underneath, every character, regardless of age, race, income or sexual orientation, is searching for one thing - genuine love and acceptance.  The one-night-stand, non-conformist lifestyle that they lived to prove how modern they were, eventually became shallow and left them longing for a more universal and conventional connection:

"Well, Mary Ann and I had this really heavy session where she told me she wanted to go back to Cleveland, and I gave her the whole est trip about taking control of her life and all...but the creepy thing is that sometimes I think she's right.  Maybe we should all go back to Cleveland." (p. 218)

""I need....some sort of security, Mouse.  I'm thirty-one years old...I'm sick of buying clothes at Goodwill and pretending they're funky.  I want a bathroom you can clean and a microwave oven and a place to plant roses and a dog who'll recognize me when I come home." (p. 254)

Mr. Maupin's tales combine the individual stories of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane into one melting-pot that proves the adage: "The things that unite us are greater than the things that separate us."


  1. Oh I read Tales From The City a long time ago - I never could remember what it was called but I remember it being filled with great characters and pretty cool food for thought on society and our roles within it. Thanks for giving me the name of the book again - now I can go back and re-read it. I'm sure I'd take more out of it this time around.

  2. Oh my, I'll bet this was a surprise if you didn't really know what it was about going in! I got this one for my hubs a couple of years ago because he's been to San Francisco many times and loves it. One of these days he's actually going to read it! I should probably stop piling books up for him to read faster than he can read them.