Back in the early years, when Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series unfolded as a soap-operatic serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, a reader sent him a threatening letter.
Its purpose? To defend the life of a beloved character stricken with a dangerous illness. The malady, like many of Maupin’s plot points, had been ripped from the headlines.
“I’m nothing but a middle-aged housewife from Moraga,” the reader wrote from across the bay, “but if you kill Michael Mouse, I’ll never subscribe to the Chronicle again.”
Maupin has dispatched characters ever since the first novel in the series, “Tales of the City” (1978), which was set in 1976. In the 1980s, when AIDS was ravaging San Francisco, it devastated Maupin’s imagined version of that city, too. The novels’ bohemian family was far from unscathed.
But most of its founding members have endured: sweet Michael, his friends Brian and Mary Ann, and mystical, maternal Anna Madrigal, their onetime landlady at 28 Barbary Lane, where she grew sinsemilla in the garden and named the plants they all smoked after movie stars and royalty.
So it’s unsettling, even a bit scary, to feel the nearness of death in “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” the ninth — and, Maupin says, final — novel in the series. If it is an ending, it is elegantly done.
“You are old, Mr. Mouse,” Michael tells himself. He feels it, too, compared with his decades-younger husband, but Michael, sixtyish now and round, long living with HIV, is not the only one with mortality on his mind.
Gliding between moments of light humor and deep intensity, “The Days of Anna Madrigal” is just as full of sex, romance, yearning, and madcap adventure as any of its predecessors. In this ensemble piece, Anna — in the past, too often a stay-at-home — gets to be the star. At last, some of the mystery in which she’s cloaked herself falls away.
“Leaving Like a Lady” is the title of Chapter 1, and that’s how Anna, now in her 90s, plans to exit this plane: with a firm and gentle grace.
But she’s not dead yet, and Maupin does enjoy sending his characters on a good road trip. Anna’s thirtysomething roommate Jake is scheming to take her to Burning Man to celebrate her transgender trailblazing, which did so much to ease his own hard path.
And Brian and his brand-new wife Wren — yes, the Wren he didn’t quite hook up with in “Significant Others” (1987) — want to pile Anna into their Winnebago for a visit to the old woman’s Nevada hometown, where her mother ran a brothel.
Lately, images of long-ago times have been occupying Anna’s mind. Back then, she was “scared-silly little Andy Ramsey,” a boy who didn’t feel like a boy, smitten with a handsome classmate who worked at the local soda fountain. In her memories, we glimpse the roots of her compassion and shame, intertwined.
“The Days of Anna Madrigal” is about origins and amends, mortality and legacy, knowing when to let go and when to hold on tight. It is also about family. The “Tales” books are always about family, including the annoying members, like Brian and Mary Ann’s daughter Shawna, who was so much cuter as a child.
The series is inherently political but never doctrinaire; Maupin joyfully skewers militants of myriad stripes. His central tenet is that we are all in this together. The comfort of the tribe he understands entirely, but he has no patience with separatists.
His characters — gay, straight, and transgender, a little slice of America — share a city and their lives. They always have. As Anna once said to Michael, “There are no sides, dear.”
A close observer of the human heart, Maupin is equally attuned to popular currents and trends. Yet when he ventures into satire, which is often, it isn’t the sort that closes on Saturday night. It tends to retain, even gain, strength with time.
“The Days of Anna Madrigal” shows us where we as a culture were just a moment ago. To gauge our evolution since the bicentennial, start with “Tales of the City.” Then keep reading.Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes @gmail.com.