The author’s name should already give one an idea about the kind of novel this is. Affected. Overtly gay. Quite pretentious. This is not to mean of course that I don’t like it. I am, after all, affected and pretentious too on occasion (HAH!). The fact that it was referred to me suggests that it has its redeeming qualities. Let’s consider the context in which the “extended love letter to San Francisco” was created in the first place.
Tales for a Newspaper: The context
It was originally intended for a newspaper publication. One of those short stories that supposedly hooks its readers to want to read it the next day and the day after. I suppose the theme was deemed controversial (homosexuality, drugs, derisive descriptions of the high-class society and their many follies) during its time (it was published 1976) – contributing to its fame and notoriety (but adds very little to its literary merit – if at all).
Sketches of the Characters
It innocuously begins with a female character in her 20s (Mary Ann Singleton) who came to visit San Francisco only to end up “adopting” the city and not going back to the safe haven of her hometown, Cleveland (the implication being that the latter is a boring, safe, provincial area bereft of any kind of excitement).
I couldn’t even call this section Profiles since that would be doing the narrative more service than it actually deserves. The characters are like cardboard cut-outs, for lack of a better term. Flat and two-dimensional. Neither depth nor substance. Just frivolity, excitement, witty suspense dabbed with gaiety and the intent to shock (probably in the 70s it has its power and charm to move but fails miserably though in this day and age,). We could of course explain it away by claiming that Maupin had to conserve space and text since this was meant for a … recall … a short section in a newspaper. So he has to be dense and concise. It was not surprising, then, that when I reached the end of the book, I could still barely recall the names of the characters – and I have to consult earlier chapters just to check who they are.
There are attempts at quick-witted lines and conversations that border on the genteel and artistic – but it ends up barely scratching the surface of what is – no intuitive feel or sense of either what is being said or who is saying it. I thoroughly disliked the fact that there were way too many dialogues – I can’t even keep track of who’s saying what. I guess the newspaper space demanded that “Michael says” or “said Anna” should be deleted to conserve space. I feel that the book would be worth more as a screen play rather than an actual novel what with all the dialogues.
Michael Tolliver appears somewhere in the 8th or 15th chapter… Can’t really recall since each chapter is like 3 to 4 pages brief. He dominates the book though with his short-lived love affairs, bravado, gayspeak, and the fact that he is not out with his parents. Surprise, surprise.
Profile of San Francisco
More than the characters of the story, the book does a better job of depicting the “culture” of SFO: knowledge of poetics is mandatory, there is no coffee but brewed coffee (such a mortal social booboo if you deign offer instant coffee to visiting friends); garish, mismatched upholstery as a depiction of one’s artistic sensibilities; and one’s blasé and impassive acknowledgment and acceptance of geyluuuuv, nude beaches, public steam baths, not to mention the hippie culture. One should celebrate che guevarra (never mind that you don’t know the history of his country), quote Tennyson (regardless of whether you’ve read him only once), and smoke hand-rolled joints (by virtue of its being there in the first place). It’s all about the packaging.
I find it to be a poor representation of what I discovered when I actually visited frisco: the vibrance, the natural and authentic beauty, and the evident joy of the beautiful “heathens” just lollygagging and gallivanting the streets of sifo. The book made everything sound so artificial and contrived – highly affected but hardly genuine. There are several laugh out loud moments by making one feel like a hick by reading the do’s and don’ts of what it’s like to be living in san francisco – and be considered an adoptive ‘native’ of the city. For some reason, it felt empty, lacking a core – all beautiful outer shell that: a) reads PEOPLE at the very least and not some condensed book from reader’s digest b) pill-pops (with frequent reference to Quaalude) or joint-smokes or c) dons the Free Spirit Attire (neatly tagged and labeled at the back of your shirt, or better yet tattooed on your forehead – for an easy lay). I just felt that rather than a genuine expression of what it means to release one’s inner self – there are very clear restrictions and regulations of do’s and don’ts – much similar to the refinements of nobilities – only with a concerted and willful attempt to be the opposite (one has to be ‘artistic’ and ‘creative’ for cryingoutloud) by clearly enumerating the behavioral expectations of what it “appears” like – rather than what it truly is.
I think he can’t find a way to end the story – all the characters are remotely connected somehow in some loosely-woven fabric (too many loose ends for my comfort – suggestive of a lack of foresight and real planning on the writer’s end). Hence, what better way to end the story than by an accidental death, (way-too-obvious) revelations, and clumsy attempts at twists and turns that again leave no insight or epiphanies – just neat and brief The Ends. Let’s all clap ladies, gay, lesbians, transgender, transvestites, transsexuals, plants, vegetables, amoeba and gentlemen, since it’s a part of modern literature that conveys the beauty of SFO.
One thing though is that it’s a thoroughly engaging read. You can’t help flipping through the pages despite yourself. And yes, I shall read the remaining six just to remind myself of who the characters are yet again. And to see whether Brian is indeed gay (without his realizing it yet at book one).