Updated 5:59 pm, Friday, January 17, 2014
Armistead Maupin prepared us for this. His new novel, “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” is billed as “the ninth and final” in his “Tales of the City” series, but we’ve seen it coming since Maupin’s 2007 return to the story. That book, “Michael Tolliver Lives,” was followed by 2010’s “Mary Ann in Autumn.” His beloved characters are several decades older, as is San Francisco, which has seen two tech booms, a major earthquake and a couple of World Series victories. We won’t ever be ready to leave the residents and landlady of 28 Barbary Lane. But we also know that their creator wouldn’t speak so openly of their “days” or their lives “in autumn” if the plan was to keep them around forever.
Still, how can we imagine San Francisco without them? Michael Tolliver, Mary Ann Singleton and Brian Hawkins are all in their 60s. Landlady Anna Madrigal is 92 and retired. Stockbrokers now live at Barbary Lane. Several characters from early in the series are dead, and we want all our remaining friends to get a long farewell. But this last story, Maupin makes clear, belongs to Mrs. Madrigal.
In this new novel, Mrs. Madrigal will revisit Winnemucca, Nev., the town she left nearly 80 years ago for San Francisco.
We’ll see the life Anna Madrigal had in the desert brothel her mother owned, the young boy she loved and lost and the second mother who cared for her before she spent a lifetime caring for others. And she’ll be driven there by her old tenant, Brian Hawkins, who now lives in a Winnebago in Pacifica.
At the same time, Michael, his husband, Ben, and Brian’s grown daughter, Shawna (a writer) are headed out to Burning Man. Jake Greenleaf, Anna Madrigal’s faithful caretaker, is planning a Black Rock City salute, in the form of an enormous butterfly art car, to the 92-year-old and her remarkable life. And even though there’s some doubt among the friends whether Anna Madrigal can withstand Burning Man’s harsh conditions, Winnemucca and Black Rock City are about 150 miles apart. No points then for guessing if Mrs. Madrigal and her family all do end up united on the Playa together.
I fear I’ve made it sound as if “The Days of Anna Madrigal” is a novel of neat bows and tidy conclusions. We know this is not how the series works. Characters arrive and depart. Some endings are happy, most are unknown. It’s the messiness of life.
It still hurts. Perhaps you, too, moved to San Francisco with a few volumes of “Tales of the City” stuffed in a backpack, as I did 14 years ago. Perhaps you read its last page seated on the wooden steps of Barbary Lane avatar Macondray Lane on Russian Hill, as I did.
You’ve got your own “Tales” traditions. But they all lead to the same conclusion: You finished reading and had to let go of this story you loved so much. Because now it was time to stop reading about a mythic city and make it your own.
I may have been a riding a tricycle when “Tales of the City” was first serialized in this newspaper in the mid-1970s. But its magic has always been how it both pins this place down and releases it into universality. By nailing the San Francisco of Harvey Milk, Maupin invited each successive generation of new-to-town Mary Ann Singletons to see San Francisco as theirs, too.
Accepting change is not one of our city’s strengths. As the current debate over whether technology money is “ruining” or “evolving” San Francisco demonstrates, each historical shift makes us angry over the past we feel we are losing and simultaneously blind to history: San Francisco has always been a place of too little space and too rapid hellos and goodbyes. Our arrival will feel important to us, an intrusion to the previous generation, an obstacle to the next one. Perhaps, then, the only “real San Francisco” belongs to the bay, the mountains and the “portable Barbary Lane,” as Maupin puts it, that this place gives us the chance to create.
Maupin moved to Santa Fe, N.M., last summer. But he left us goodbye instructions in “The Days of Anna Madrigal.” This book is less dense in plot than many others in the series, a gathering of old friends and light on incident. Though Maupin is a master at a good mystery, there are none here. The San Francisco in this novel is a city of high-rise construction and expensive coffee. But it’s not presented as a warning: It simply is, as if to say it will continue on, as it did before we got here and after we are gone.
It is the ending that Maupin’s enormous, generous achievement deserves: quiet, centered and sad. To ask if it’s better or worse than Vols. 1 through 8 misses the point. It brings the last great ships into the bay at sunset and does so brilliantly.
“Live long and be good!” a key character tells a young Anna Madrigal in one of the novel’s many farewells. Without saying so, the serene, heartbreaking “Days of Anna Madrigal” adds: Love as much as you can, thank those who helped you be yourself, and recognize the grace in knowing when to say goodbye.
Goodbye, “Tales of the City.” We will miss you, but we know it was time. And Armistead Maupin, please come back and visit often. San Francisco, yours and ours, is open.
Kevin Smokler is the author of “Practical Classics: 50 Reason to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School.” E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org