MiniReview: "Tales of the City" by Armistead Maupin

Nice cover of a French edition of the book.

Tales of the City! What a landmark, a milestone—a book series, multiple TV adaptations, an entire fictional universe! So what are we reviewing?

It’s the book, the original book, the first one, published in 1978.


OK, well, I’m sure everyone knows what it’s about, so we can skip that.

Actually, I didn’t. Of course I’d heard of Tales of the City, and knew it had something to do with gay life in San Francisco, but that was about it.  


Fine, I can see you’re going to insist on proceeding in the usual way. So what it’s about? (We all know …)

It starts off with a young woman (heterosexual) from Cleveland who abruptly decides to set up a new life in San Francisco. She takes an apartment in a building where she meets an assortment of comical and bohemian characters.


And they’re all gay! How fabulous!!

In fact, they’re not. That was a bit of a surprise for me, because Armistead Maupin is so well known as a gay writer, but (at least in this book) the large cast of characters is hugely varied. Yes, there are homosexuals, bisexuals, gays in the closet, male swimsuit contests and cock rings and bathhouses, but there are plenty of straight characters and situations as well. In this way, the book is much more varied than I expected. It’s a portrait of San Francisco life, not specifically of gay life.


Oh. Did you still enjoy it anyway?

Yes indeed. Maupin is a great storyteller, weaving together many storylines, some of them involving quite dark themes (one character is dying, another commits suicide, another suffers an accidental death), but everything is kept light and comic (yes, even the suicide). “Light” is the operative word here: this is the lightest of fiction, a fast read, purely comic, sometimes burlesque, even verging on surreal. And it has that hallmark of so much queer literature: an acceptance of difference, of eccentricity, of the marginal. It makes you feel good about human beings, and about being one of them, however much you may feel offside at times.


Stars (using the Michelin system)?


One star. This is literature as unmitigated fun and delight. It’s a bit dated now (there are a lot of popular culture references, some of which are very obscure in 2019). Nothing really to take away from this book, except maybe a desire to visit San Francisco soon. And to read the next book in the series.

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