Monday, February 23, 2009
Looking for something to read with my morning coffee, I see a pile of books on the desk at the back of my kitchen. Armistead Maupin's 2007 piece, Michael Tolliver Lives. I saw Mr Maupin at the checkout line at the grocery store yesterday or the day before.
I loved the Tales of the City series. Before I ever visited the wonderful city where I have now lived for more than 17 years, those fantastical stories populated it in my soul. On my first trip here, in February of 1988....I still recall my shock at seeking cala lilies growing on the street...the San Francisco I met was much shaped by Maupin's gift for storytelling and outrageous characters. I almost expected to see the Barbary Lane folks on the street. Had my picture taken on the steps of Macondry Lane, above.
Nostalgia is selective. That year, the plague was in full swing. Death was visible. Just the year before, I had made a wrenching life-change. And the man I visited San Francisco with, who was my new lover, would later, when we moved here a few years after that, become so irksome to be around that it was fifteen years after our breakup before I could sit down to lunch with him.
When the Tales movies started being made in the early 90's, one of my workmates, who became a friend, whom I loved, and who died soon after, watched them with me. Seeing the book, I think of the film, and of him, and tears come to my eyes. He was one of those guys who had a big dose of "guy", who loved home improvement, gadgets, his motorcycle. But he also had a shy sweetness and boyish playfulness about him. I miss his smile still.
In More Tales of the City (1980), Michael Tolliver writes a coming-out letter to his parents. In it, he tells his mother that by accepting to be loved for who he is, he feels that he has at last "joined the family of man." Maupin has said that the letter is the piece he is most proud of having written.
I agree. I know how that felt, when the internal sewer of fear and shame is purged after years and years and the stunning gift is given of being seen in the open for who you are, in daylight, without apology. You finally feel human.
When I read Michael Tolliver Lives, I was nostalgic for the younger Tolliver, the Maupin of bygone days. Not because life was simpler twenty years earlier. As I said, death was everywhere. But what I found in MTL was that "the family of man" had shrunk.
The Tales had always been merciless about some kinds of people: closeted homophobes and religious bigots. Friends who disappointed you. Yet there was still play and open-heartedness and the hopefulness of people looking for something. The new book is full of self-righteous victimism and all the cliches of the Bush-hating years. More laughter is described in this book than provoked. Michael, now in his mid-fifties and despite being loved by a handsome and good-hearted guy twenty years his junior (Maupin's real-life situation now), has become, as one reviewer noticed, sour and whiny. And worse.
Returning to see his family, with his mother on her way to death, Michael can still only see one thing: their not seeing him exactly as he sees himself. His narcissism is painful to witness. They are part of the family of man, these flawed people, these white American Christians from the South, but they dare to maintain a value and belief system different from Michael's, one in which he is not completely ok. Within that world, they do their clumsy best to treat him decently but will not undo their whole world in order to make him feel embraced. So, too typically of what San Francisco has become a quarter century later, he coldly excommunicates them --and most of America-- from the little sect of victims he has now canonized as his "real" family, his queer family.
He encapsulates what "tolerance" has come to mean: an angry and self-centered demand to be celebrated loudly and fully precisely for those qualities that other people honestly find hard to take. What is supposed to come off as his hard and noble choice actually feels small-souled, bitter, and totally lacking in compassion. An unforgiving Michael Tolliver has forgotten his letter and has become the very people he fled from.
Unlike Maupin, there is another author, Federico Fellini...whose genre makes him an auteur, I guess...who knew what Maupin has forgotten. My favorite film, Amarcord, is going to be shown at the Castro theater next week. Fellini is able to portray his characters in all their blindness and smallness and fear, but while we laugh at them he never lets us hold them in contempt. He never forgets that they are part of his family, our family. Perhaps that's an Italian gift, or perhaps the gift of a spirit who can look the world in the face and still find some affection for it. No easy task. Maupin's way is the easier way, self-indulgent and clear, but it's not better. Makes me sad, makes me miss the old days. Nost/algia.
at 8:21 AM