Staring in the mirror every morning is a terrible way to track your own aging. That’s why checking in on friends you haven’t see for years can be so brutal—the graying hair and expanding waistlines stand out all the more as the intervals between visits widen. That doesn’t mean spending time with auld acquaintances need be depressing: As they grow older and more vulnerable, it’s easier to be generous—to forget the missteps of the past and focus on the fun you had together.
That, at least, is how I felt when reading The Days of Anna Madrigal, the ninth and final novel in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series. Since the first book appeared in 1978, Michael, Brian, Mary Ann, and the rest of the gang that once resided at 28 Barbary Lane have married, divorced, loved, lost, raised children, started businesses, and taken enough drugs to make a Haight-Ashbury hippie run to rehab.
And since the books take place in something approximating real time, the characters have also aged. Mrs. Madrigal, once the landlady of the ramshackle San Francisco rambler they all called home, is now a fragile 92, and Michael and the rest of her former tenants are past 60. They’re pondering, or executing, retirement plans, and as often happens when one reaches a certain age—or so I’m told—they’re thinking back on the past.
If that sounds dull, don’t forget the eight books that came before this one. Joining the series in progress is technically possible—Maupin is generous enough to scatter a few catch-up clues throughout the text—but I don’t recommend it.
When the stories began, originally as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, the overlapping worlds of closeted Nob Hill elites, straight waiters looking for Ms. Goodbar, gay guys shaking their moneymakers in dive-bar dance competitions, and free-spirited transsexual landladies serving platters of joints as dinner-party appetizers were unimaginably exotic to most Americans. In those pre-Internet days, the destinations of the set-piece adventures the books were often structured around—the all-male Bohemian Grove retreat, a women-only music festival—were shrouded in mystery. In The Days of Anna Madrigal, we visit Burning Man, an annual event chronicled in minute detail on all manner of easily accessible blogs, books, and Slate travel pieces.
At this point in the long and epic series, the thrill lies in the familiarity. Not so much with the place itself—many of the old San Francisco haunts have been taken over by tech bros, and 28 Barbary Lane is now home to stockbrokers—but with the characters some of us have been following for decades. It almost doesn’t matter what Michael, Brian, and Mary Ann get up to—just seeing their paths intersect once again is pleasure enough. (And let’s face it, if you’re eight books in, the last thing you want from me right now is a spoiler about what happens in No. 9.)
Rest assured, though, The Days of Anna Madrigal is well-stocked with Easter eggs—there’s a callback to the Great God Pan outfit Michael wore in the original Tales of the City; a long flashback to Anna’s childhood home in Winnemucca, which was a crucial bond with Edgar Halcyon in that first novel; and others I’ll let you discover for yourselves. Nowadays, the characters buy their marijuana at a dispensary instead of growing it in the garden of Barbary Lane, the names of the British royals they obsess over have changed, and twinks have become daddies, but these are clearly the same folks we’ve known and loved for years.
Whatever age we are when we read these books, we’re all getting older, so it’s hard—maybe impossible—not to insert ourselves into their fictional world. AIDS, cancer, and old age have done their worst, but these characters will survive forever, and they’ll always be surrounded by people who love them. Who could ask for anything more?