I am known for many things, two to which I will admit are my addiction to reading and my propensity for bursting into tears at the slightest provocation. Interesting fact: Rarely are the two coincident. So, when I burst into sobbing during the last few pages of The Days of Anna Madrigal, Armistead Maupin’s ninth and final novel in the Tales of the City nonet, I was surprised as well as emotionally drained. Here is the synopsis from Mr. Maupin’s official website:
THE DAYS OF ANNA MADRIGAL
Anna Madrigal, the transgender landlady of 28 Barbary Lane, is one of modern literature’s most unforgettable and enduring characters. Now a fragile ninety-two and committed to the notion of “leaving like a lady,” Anna has seemingly found peace in the bosom of her logical family in San Francisco: her devoted young caretaker Jake Greenleaf, who’s hard at work on a secret art project: her former tenant Brian Hawkins, now unexpectedly remarried at 67; Brian’s daughter Shawna, a single woman who wants to be pregnant, and, of course, Michael Tolliver and Mary Ann Singleton, both of whom have known and loved Anna for over thirty-five years.
Some members of Anna’s family are bound for the other-worldly landscape of Burning Man, the art community in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada where 60,000 revelers will build a city (Michael calls it “a Fellini carnival on Mars”) designed to last only a week. Anna herself has another Nevada destination in mind: a lonely stretch of road outside of Winnemucca where the 16-year-old boy she used to be ran away from the whorehouse he called home. With the aid of Brian and his beat-up RV she journeys east from San Francisco into the dusty troubled heart of her Depression childhood, facing some unfinished business she has so far avoided.
Suspenseful, comic and touching, THE DAYS OF ANNA MADRIGAL unearths secrets and dreams that span 75 years.
That’s for those of you who need a synopsis with your book reviews. I myself want to know what a person felt while reading the book.
The first installment of this series was published in 1978, but I didn’t read it immediately. It wasn’t until the early 80’s when I once again ran away from home, this time across the entire country, and ended up in the San Francisco Bay area, that I discovered Mr. Maupin’s work – along with many other discoveries redolent of the journeys of the characters in the novels.
I didn’t last long in California. The first real earthquake I experienced sent me home. At the time, there was nothing in my life over which I felt I had any control at all, and the ground vibrating beneath my feet, nowhere for me to escape it, that was more than I could bear. It terrified me. Too, I was not a California soul. I did not fit in there. And while my entire life up to that point had been a lesson in not fitting in the predominantly conservative, hetero-sexist Frederick, Maryland, it turned out I also didn’t fit in the San Francisco gay or theatre community either.
I have never much fit anywhere. Like Anna Madrigal. So, I tried to be like Anna Madrigal, to create a life, a family, a world in which I was comfortable, where I did feel supported and where I could offer a sense of belonging to other misfits and miscreants who came my way in need of shelter. Like Anna Madrigal, for a while, I did a damn nice job of that. And, like Anna Madrigal, I have aged. I miss parts of the boarding house for lost souls I had going, but, eventually, one needs to sit down with one’s self and allow someone else to load the vaporizer.
The Days of Anna Madrigal is an artfully constructed book. Like all the Tales of the City novels it dances in that magical realm of could be and coincidence, but grounded enough in possibility and plausible motivation that it stays just this side of fantasy, firmly in the fantastic. Anna and most of the other favorites from the series end up at a Burning Man festival, and when we leave them, we can feel confident that they are all well-loved, if not always by themselves, then by those they have called and made family. Anna – who I suspect is built from the best of Mr. Maupin’s open and Light-filled soul – as always, says it best:
“Brian, dear — you mustn’t try to tidy things up. You’ll just exhaust yourself.”
“There’s no tidying up to be done . . . with the possible exception of this hat.” She fiddled with the loose ends of the turban that Sergeant Lisa had presented to her as soon as they had left the Winnie that morning. “What I mean to say is … I’ve said all I need to say to each and every one of you. Michael included. It’s in you now for good.”
That is beautiful. It’s beautiful not just because it is so perfectly in character and as apt as it is insightful, but, also, technically gorgeous. That all that is left to be tidied is a thing she has been handed by someone else in which to wrap her head, only the dressings, the outside – oh Mr. Maupin, I am still in awe.
I sit here, having said so much to so many, but not yet having achieved Anna’s grace of having said all I needed to, and I recall the young – so young – man I was in San Francisco and my first (well, only) Thanksgiving there and that sailor eating alone in the restaurant where I and my other transplant friends – all of us trying not to admit we were homesick – had gone to eat. I started crying (which, as I said, I am famous for) because he was all alone. I could not get a grip. My friend, A, unable to take any more, invited him to join us. He did. And he came back with us to our place. And that night he made me forget I was homesick, and I fell – as I did so often then – into what I thought was love and started picturing forever – and, of course, I never heard from or saw him again.
When the earthquake hit, my first ever Barbara Cook l.p. was playing on the stereo. I had a lot of “first evers” in my short time there. Miss Cook and I were mid Vanilla Ice Cream from She Loves Me which – ever after – skipped at the spot playing when the earth started to shake.
These strands of memory . . . they will not be tidied. They will not stay in place. They come up, they demand attention, they make us who we are and are woven into the fabric of our days, the patchwork quilts in which we wrap ourselves against the cold of the increasing solitude of aging, when there are fewer and fewer people who truly know us, who even begin to understand the quilts we wear. That part of aging – the loss of those who understand, who “get it”, is – I think – the hardest, and so, perhaps, the bursting into sobs at the end of The Days of Anna Madrigal had to do with that as much as anything else.
The beautiful Tales of the City have ended. Anna has said all she has to say to me, and I have lost one more friend, adding to the list another person (well, people) I have deeply loved and trusted in my life who will not be returning. Farewell, dear Anna. I will always love you.