You’re gonna get screwed but good in this town

Tales of the City
by Armistead Maupin

After hearing this book praised left, right and centre since I started book blogging I figured I had to give it a go. And what a joy it is!

This is the first in what has turned out to be a very long-running series about a large cast of characters in San Francisco. In this book (I don’t know if this is true of any of the rest) the focus is on a boarding house on Russian Hill run by the inimitable Anna Madrigal (who grows her own weed and claims to have been raised in a whorehouse), and in particular her tenant Mary Ann Singleton. Mary Ann has newly arrived in the city from Cleveland and her sweet naivety is in for a shock. Or several shocks.

According to something I heard on Radio 4 (I think it was on A Good Read) the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle, in which this started life as a serial, kept a tally of straight versus gay sex scenes because there was a concern about it being “too gay”. Which tells you a little about the book. It is outrageous and wickedly funny but also intelligent and insightful. The characters lean very slightly into the larger-than-life category but they are not stereotypical or predictable. It really is an achievement that so much silliness can be so lovable.

There are dozens of storylines at work, only a couple of which are wrapped up by the end of the novel. The characters are introduced separately but their lives quickly overlap to the point where I was hard-pressed to remember who knew who from where. I’ll just have to read it again!

The extra character is, of course, the city of San Francisco. Maupin lovingly describes its streets and views and bars and people with all the little details of someone who calls it home. It is very much a tale of 1978, with an undercurrent of the politics and social nuances of the time. I was (perhaps naively) surprised by how much of the “pretentious” of middle-class life today (organic food, over-earnest attempts to appear not racist or homophobic, caring about global warming) was considered pretentious back then too. It is satirical but somehow firmly on the side of the people it satirises. Both prudish innocent (Mary Ann) and sexaholic (most everyone else) are celebrated in their own way.

I can see why it has been called a literary soap opera and it is indeed both those things. It isn’t literary in floweriness but rather in insight and cleverly spare language that gives you just enough, while finding room for some fantastic little jokes with words and meanings. So that’s six more books to add to the wishlist then, I guess!

First published in 1978 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Published in book form in 1980 by Corgi Books.

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