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Maupin revisits ‘Tales of the City’ hippies

Stretched out on a sofa next to his Australian shepherd, Sophie, Armistead Maupin says he never intended to write another installment of his popular “Tales of the City” series.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stretched out on a sofa next to his Australian shepherd, Sophie, Armistead Maupin says he never intended to write another installment of his popular “Tales of the City” series.

But thankfully for fans worldwide, Maupin’s newest book, “Michael Tolliver Lives,” revisits many of the same larger-than-life characters that propelled “Tales” from a weekly San Francisco Chronicle column to six books and a Showtime mini-soap opera.

The book debuts Tuesday, when Maupin kicks off a tour and Mayor Gavin Newsom declares “Michael Tolliver Day” in San Francisco.

Instead of randy hippies who smoke joints, as they did when the series began in 1976, the aging lefties of “Michael Tolliver Lives” pop joint and arthritis pills. Instead of plotting nightly sexual conquests, as they did as 20-something singles, many profess shock at the level of promiscuousness practiced by today’s youth.

The book — which would certainly earn the literary equivalent of an R rating — centers on Michael Tolliver, the endearing Southern gay man who came to San Francisco in 1971 and lived at 28 Barbary Lane. Now Michael is in his mid-50s, a mildly arthritic and HIV-positive landscape architect married to Ben, a handsome furniture designer and yogi 21 years younger.

Michael first spots Ben on an Internet dating site, and a chance meeting in a coffee shop results in romance. They get hitched over Valentine’s Day weekend in 2004, when the city began granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Except for Ben’s weekly forays to bath houses in Berkeley, they’re homebodies who watch sappy movies and tease each other about their lack of cooking skills.

“I wanted to tell the story of a gay man getting older — especially one who thought death was imminent and is now confronting normal mortality,” Maupin, 63, said in the living room of his 1907 Craftsman overlooking the San Francisco Bay. “I didn’t want to say it was a ‘Tales’ sequel because I didn’t want to disappoint fans.”

For readers looking for updates on “Tales” characters, Maupin delivers. Mary Ann, the straight-laced girl from Cleveland who moved to San Francisco to find a husband, is now a wealthy wife in Connecticut. Brian, once a sex-crazed heterosexual who relished his bachelor status, is a single father uncertain whether to embrace or stifle his precocious daughter’s bisexuality.

Politics play heavily in novelThe biggest difference between “Michael Tolliver” and earlier installments is Maupin’s emphasis on politics. Several chapters take place near Orlando, Fla., where Michael visits his dying mother and introduces Ben to his born-again Christian relatives.

Michael bristles at Dick Cheney, the War on Terror, the radical right’s influence in Washington. His relatives — racists and homophobes who live in a mansion and drive SUVs and a gas-guzzling boat — pray that he’ll pick a straight “lifestyle” and repent before he goes to hell.

Maupin, a North Carolina native and Vietnam War veteran who came to San Francisco in 1971 as a reporter for The Associated Press, says the novel’s political edge mirrors the polarization between red and blue America. It’s also the logical result of Michael’s maturity, he says.

“By the time you’ve reached my age, you’re a lot less tolerant of bull---- from your family, even though the bonds still connect you and you still want to please,” Maupin said. “We’ve made progress from utter invisibility 30 years ago to prominence in the cultural scene, but with that prominence has come a more rampant form of homophobia. My hope is that we’re close to the time that homophobia takes on the status of racism today — normal, mainstream people don’t accept it.”

Maupin didn’t create Michael Tolliver in his own image; the author’s relatives welcomed his husband, Christopher Turner, into the family. But other parallels are obvious.

Maupin first saw Turner three years ago on an Internet site for older gay men, which Turner founded and runs. Maupin refused to solicit a date online and figured he’d never see Turner in real life.

Weeks later, he spotted Turner walking in the Castro, the city’s gay enclave. Maupin stopped him, they exchanged numbers, dated, moved in together and married in Vancouver in February. Turner is 27 years younger than Maupin.

“I’m blessed to have found a man who loves me for who I am,” said Maupin, who has bright but watery eyes and ruddy cheeks. “I am trying to be the best 63 I can — and I’m happy that I don’t have to try to impersonate a man of 35. I want the novel to convey the fact that love, sex and connection are still there for us as we get older, just like it has been for me.”