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Reading The Days of Anna Madrigal (HarperCollins), the ninth novel in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, is a little like attending the reunion of one’s family–the logical rather than biological one, as Mrs. Madrigal might say. Characters some of us have known since the late 1970s are now in their sixties. Mrs. Madrigal’s former tenant, the now sixty-seven year old Brian Hawkins, is newly married to the big-hearted Wren, with whom he lives in a Winnebago. Brian’s former wife, Mary Ann Singleton, who returned to San Francisco in Maupin’s 2010 novel, Mary Ann in Autumn, is back (although briefly), as is Michael Tolliver, also known as “Mouse,” now married to the much younger Ben. And of course there’s Anna Madrigal, bestower of wisdom, still vibrant if not frail at 92, her life’s work now dedicated to “leaving like a lady.”
Many of the characters in The Days of Anna Madrigal may be from the past, but they fully inhabit a contemporary world. Maupin’s Tales of the City novels are nothing if not a reflection of the times in which they were written, and Anna Madrigal is no exception. Years from now, one can imagine a glossary at the end of these books to clarify what will become obscure references and dated language. Who will remember the Chick-fil-A boycott in fifty years? And what about expressions like “amazeballs,” “throw shade,” and “chillax”? Yet while Maupin has always had his finger on the pulse of contemporary language, he is also capable of elegantly written sentences that are so unobtrusive that their wistfulness and melancholy can almost go unnoticed. Of Mrs. Madrigal and her tenant and caretaker Jake he writes, “One afternoon last winter, after the first cold snap, he came home from the gym to find her asleep in her chair, the remains of an amethyst candle dripping off the end of the table like a Dali clock.” Of course it’s not just melancholy that Maupin weaves throughout the book. Also on display is Maupin’s trademark humor that emerges from the characters and situations: there are no clunky punch lines in this prose. Maupin’s wit is part of the novel’s fabric.
The Days of Anna Madrigal begins in present day San Francisco, but two road trips bring us to Anna’s hometown of Winnemucca and to Burning Man, the temporary city erected and destroyed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert each year. Lasting only one week, the festival is among other things, an oasis of radical self-expression and self-reliance. Trips of a different sort are the flashbacks to Anna’s younger years, before she left Winnemucca at age sixteen. And so in addition to the former denizens of 28 Barbary Lane, we meet new people, too: the son of Anna’s childhood friend, revelers at Burning Man, and a different version of someone we’ve known for years, as we see Anna (nee Andy) in her pre-transition youth.
Quentin Crisp once referred to Maupin as “the man who invented San Francisco,” and it’s easy to see why. The city came so alive for its many readers that the books lured more than a few transplants to the Bay Area. If there’s an autumnal quality to The Days of Anna Madrigal, it’s not just its meditations on old age and dying (which, by the way, never weight the story down); it’s also because when Maupin sets his characters out on their road trips, we say goodbye to San Francisco, too. Maupin has announced that Anna Madrigal will be the last novel in the series, so it’s fitting that once we leave the city for Nevada, we don’t return.
Still, I wanted one more evening at Mrs. Madrigal’s place with her friends, smoking dope and chatting the time away, even as I understand that not having that opportunity made the book all the more poignant. In The Days of Anna Madrigal, Maupin’s characters, as well as the author himself, have perfected the art of the graceful exit.
The Days of Anna Madrigal
by Armistead Maupin
Hardcover, 9780062196248, 288 pp.