In Michael Tolliver Lives, Armistead Maupin once again exhibits his love for the beloved characters made so famous in his highly successful
"Tales of the City" series. The good news is that you don't have to have read any of the previous novels to appreciate this melancholic and deeply reflective ode to the life and loves of fifty-five-year-old HIV-positive Michael Tolliver.
Now middle-aged, Michael
still lives in his beloved "gayberry" of San Francisco and enjoying a comfortable urban life, one he once believed was almost unattainable. One of the few men of his generation who cheated death, Michael can barely turn around without gazing into the strangely familiar features of someone long believed dead whom he spies while walking the isles at the local supermarket or on the streets of the Castro district.
Michael has found love with Ben, a much younger man whom he met over the Internet thanks to the connections of his friends. Ben appears in Michael's life almost out of the blue, from a web site for men in their twenties and thirties who are specifically looking for partners over the age of forty–five. Like someone from another century, Ben totally captures Michael with his casual masculinity and tenderness of heart.
Meeting Ben, however, is not the only sudden shift that occurs in Michael's life. When Irwin, his brother, calls from Orlando
to inform him that their mother is dying of emphysema, Michael dutifully returns to the fold, taking Ben with him. Once a virtual stranger in the scheme of things, a subtle shift has occurred
in Michael's relationship with his mother. It now seems as though he has been called upon to manage her affairs in her final days.
Up until now, Lenore, Michael's Christian fundamentalist sister-in-law, has been left to hold
down the Biblical fort, tending to their Moma ever since Papa died while also teaching
children's bible study and doing her Jesus puppet ministry with their seven-year-old grandson.
Of course, this is a time for honesty and truth, and as Ben meets the family, Michael suddenly realizes that poor Irwin is somewhat resigned to spending the rest of his days with only his "McMansion and his Personal Savior" for company. His brother's situation certainly makes Michael realize that life hasn't been perfect, but it has been his life, tailored to his dreams and safely lived beyond the reach of "God's terrible sword."
Maupin peppers his novel with an eclectic assortment of the various people
who have orbited Michael Tolliver's world over the past thirty years. Some of the characters from previous novels make a welcome appearance, including Mary Ann, who now lives a life of privilege from her house in Darien, Connecticut.
There's Michael's best friend, Brian, "twenty pounds heavier with his sandpaper beard," and Brian's daughter Shawna, now a fully grown woman who is sexually free and liberated and content to "diddle herself in a plywood cubicle." There's also Jake Greenleaf, Michael's sometime assistant, a short, stocky bear of thirty with a trim little beard and soulful gray eyes who finds a sort of spiritual grandmother in Anna Madgrigal, Michael's octogenarian transsexual surrogate mother, still going strong after all these years.
Maupin beautifully infuses his novel with a wry, gentle humor as he charts his protagonist's course though middle-aged anxiety, the demands of his extended family, and his never-ending need to be loved. Michael's sardonic take on the world is the highlight of the story, with his comments having a particular maturity and a political resonance that is highly relevant in this age of divisiveness.