Monday, August 6, 2007

Book Review: Michael Tolliver Lives

I am a big fan of Armistead Maupin and the Tales of the City books. I love the memorable characters, the way Maupin plays with the language of the day, and the surreal coincidental meetings that suggests San Francisco is nothing but a large village. Maupin firmly sticks a push pin in the point on the cultural timeline that he is trying to capture. He writes about the time as he lives it and he does it damn well. Reading any of his previous Tales is like looking through a photograph album of another time.

Michael Tolliver Lives is a little different from the others. While still a beautiful and amusing photograph there are fewer of those serendipitous meetings probably because the book is written from Michael Tolliver's point of view where the earlier books were written from a omnipresent perspective. The characters are just as memorable and Maupin certainly plays with the language of the day.

Michael, "Mouse" of the earlier books, is now 55 and feeling it. This is his story of finding a new love and dealing with the life, death, and choices faced by middle-aged gay men. He stumbles into a "May-December" relationship with 33 year old Ben. He continues relationships with many of the other characters of the earlier books, accounts for those who are not present, and creates new and engaging characters. It's like catching up over dinner with someone with whom you have shared two or three decades.

For the middle-aged queer, it captures some of the angst and the fears that comes with growing older. Even though Michael is happily "married", he still voices many of the insecurities of this time in life. He deals with wider issues such as the cultural wars with his evangelical family in Orlando, post 9/11 politics, and changes in the gay community. Anna Madrigal, the dignified free-spirit, is a significant part of the book and always a reason alone to read these books. Anyone who in any measure has been disenfranchised from their biological family will appreciate Anna Madrigal's reference to the "logical family" or the group of individuals who actually love you back fairly unconditionally. So, let me strongly recommend this book before going on to discuss at length two things that made me really crazy about it.

1. Ben,the husband. Clearly the book has some autobiographical elements to it as I've always assumed all of Maupin's books have. Maupin is married to a younger man in reality. So, the fact that Michael, as a character, is part of this intergenerational connection is reasonable. But Ben is a character that is obscenely idealized. There is no bad in Ben. He is a bit like Melanie in Gone With the Wind. Like Melanie, every word and action from Ben is likely to induce sugar shock. Ben is never short nor snippy. He is, in fact, sensitive and always in tune with what Michael needs at every moment of their time together. He suggests to Michael an open relationship with rules and I hoped with everything I had that this would somehow lead to jealousy and a decent fight. That was too much to hope for. While the other characters indulge in pot and booze we are told that Ben is wholesome and that this is maybe a fault. He even does yoga. By the end of the book I was praying he would knock over a liquor store, push a pedophile over a cliff, or do something really dark to even out all that goodness. I hope Maupin's husband in real life is as compliant as Ben. On second thought I don't wish that on anybody.

Part of the problem with the gay community is the idealization of youth. It's our core religion and is as damaging to the middle-aged (and the often narcissistic younger) queer as the most Bible-thumping Pentecostal church. One has to wonder if Michael's significant other had turned out to be a contemporary would we have seen such sainthood? I doubt it. Chances are we would have seen someone who was moody and insecure. In other words, he would be normal. I can't help but feel that this idealization of Ben is Maupin's yearning for youth over acceptance of a perfectly decent time of life called middle-aged.

2. This is my own hang-up and, someday, I may talk to a shrink about it. I hate the use of words like "daddy". This book does "daddy" to death. Any label like that, when it is overused until it becomes shorthand for a person, makes me flinch a little inside. I may be middle-aged, but I've never been involved with the birth of a child nor have I signed adoption papers. I am nobody's "daddy". (If one digs too deep, there is a weirdly incestuous element to this phraseology.) It's like applying "bear" to anyone who is a tad overweight and hairy. What is this need to pigeon-hole? Again, it is my own hang-up and I am over-analyzing the characters, but I could have enjoyed this book more with about a 75% reduction in the "daddy" talk and a little more character development instead. Even Saint Ben in the book says something that suggests to Michael that he is trying to avoid sounding like he is too much into these roles. When did living a role become a good thing? A little good natured role-playing once in awhile is fun, but leave it in the bedroom.

In spite of these flaws, every middle-aged man will get something from this book. Most middle-aged gay men will have something in common with Michael. And it is, as are all of Maupin's books, a good, satisfying, fun read.


Anonymous said...

Gosh, I haven't read a Maupin novel in years, but I think I'm going to have to pick this up. I'd forgotten how much they cheered me up until I read your review.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comment anna-liza. I think you'll like it.

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