‘The Days of Anna Madrigal,’ by Armistead Maupin
By JESSICA BRUDER
In the mid-1970s, the managing editor of The San Francisco Chronicle kept a chart in his office with two columns: “heterosexual” and “homosexual.” Whenever a new character appeared in “Tales of the City” — the newspaper’s fiction serial by Armistead Maupin, which begat a stack of popular novels — the name was slotted accordingly.
“He was making sure that the gay characters didn’t overtake the straight characters and thereby undermine civilization,” Maupin recalled in 2012, during an appearance at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
The chart didn’t last. (When Maupin insisted on filing Faust, the series’s randy Great Dane, under “heterosexual,” his editor scrapped it.) Yet “Tales of the City” endured. Maupin’s novels followed the same bohemian tribe from the sexual revolution of the ’70s through the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and then, after an 18-year hiatus, into a postmillennial San Francisco reshaped by the tech industry. Along the way, Maupin earned the ire of antigay conservatives — in 1994, a “Tales” mini-series was condemned by lawmakers on the floors of the Georgia, Oklahoma and South Carolina legislatures. He also gained an international cult following.
The series’s ninth and final novel, “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” arrives this week. It spotlights one of Maupin’s most beloved characters: the spliff-smoking, wisecracking transgender landlady who presided over 28 Barbary Lane through most of “Tales.” Her tenants became a sort of “logical” — rather than “biological” — family.
When the novel opens, Anna, 92, can’t even light a candle without her younger roommate, the transgender gardener Jake Greenleaf, fretting she’ll fall asleep and burn the house down. When Jake stops Anna from accidentally incinerating the LED candle he bought to appease her, she intones, “I have bade farewell to flame.”
Making “such small surrenders” with dignity is part of what Anna calls “leaving like a lady.” The other part? Traveling back to Winnemucca, Nev., where Andy Ramsey — Anna as a child — lived at the Blue Moon Lodge, his mother’s brothel. There he guarded secrets: a yellow chiffon dress hidden in his room, a penchant for twirling and a crush on the Basque boy who worked at Eagle Drugs.
“The Days of Anna Madrigal” is a genial fable. Like the earlier “Tales,” it’s riddled with outlandish coincidences and best enjoyed under the willing suspension of disbelief. Told in Maupin’s roving style — call it third-person kaleidoscope — the narrative braids Anna’s story, childhood flashbacks and scenes of her adopted kin, many of whom are preparing to attend Burning Man.
They include Brian, a Winnebago-dwelling wanderer and one of Anna’s former tenants; his daughter, Shawna, a sex blogger turned best-selling novelist; and Michael and Ben, a married couple navigating a 20-year age gap. There’s also Mary Ann Singleton, the Cleveland-to-San Francisco transplant whose imagined misadventures were the genesis of “Tales.” Here she makes herself a target for Burning Man’s version of class warfare by camping in a luxuriously appointed R.V.
It’s fitting that Maupin wraps up “Tales” in the Nevada desert, at a festival that started in San Francisco and was later exiled. (In 1989, Burning Man’s climactic fire grew too big for Baker Beach, prompting a swift eviction.) The fringe, it seems, is always moving outward. If “Tales” started afresh today, Maupin’s characters might live in Oakland; instead of visiting bathhouses, they’d be blocking Google bus routes. The author himself has already moved on. In 2012, he sold his Parnassus Heights craftsman and decamped to Santa Fe.
Without giving away the finale, Anna’s past and present never really collide in ways the reader might expect. Time keeps propelling the characters forward, with no ultimate victory to be had. There are echoes of an earlier scene: Jake is playing Angry Birds. Anna wants to know if he’s winning. Jake explains patiently that it’s not the kind of game you win.
“No, you don’t,” Anna muses. “You just get to the end.”