Tales of the City, by Amistead Maupin
Let’s see. In the mid-80s I was busy compulsively reading books on psychology, digging through classic sci-fi, chasing down semiotics because of Umberto Eco, and trying to understand Wittgenstein because of Samuel R. Delany. So this book passed me by, as did a lot of popular fiction of the time. Some I’m catching up on. Some I wish I’d left in my “missed it” pile. But this book was lovely and kind of a strange trip into the past.
HIV is just around the corner in this book on San Francisco and the gay community. And the almost banal hyper-sexuality of the city at the time moves through the book. Men and women at a steam bath, an orgy developing upstairs, while men and women in towels hang out watching Phyllis on TV downstairs. The hippie movement (thriving when I lived in the area just before moving to Idaho in 1968) is nearly dead, or has moved north to the other side of the Golden Gate. Young straight men and women find themselves overwhelmed by the gay migration. Gay men and women dive or dip their toes into a new-found freedom.
The book would be more snapshot than literature without the really wonderful characters woven through the book. Some seem more iconic than real, others are unique and realistic. Before HIV the life/death struggle in the book focuses on an ad executive diagnosed with cancer.
Through the book I kept having the feeling of “I remember that” … time capsule moments that pop up in the book in every chapter. The decorating, the music, descriptions from Idaho friends who made their own escape from Idaho to San Francisco. Maupin himself came to the city from North Carolina and put this novel together from a series of observant newspaper columns. The sense of shock, wonder, and freedom … from steam baths to “Beach Blanket Babylon” … are clearly written by someone who both can’t believe his luck in this new world and also wonders if it really is that lucky. There’s a lot of joy and a lot of pain already. It wouldn’t end soon or end well.