Book Review: “Tales of the City” by Armistead Maupin – The Dickens of San Francisco

tales coverWith my computer temporarily catatonic, I exercised my eyeballs by voraciously reading Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.  Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle, Maupin’s Tales is a serial soap opera about the residents of 28 Barbary Lane, set in a time when San Francisco was at the height of its free-wheeling heyday.  Its plot elements and themes are still hot topics, which means that at the time of their original publication in 1976, Maupin’s installments must have been positively scalding his editors’ hands.  The book is compulsively readable.  The story is whip-smart fun, with delightfully complicated twists and turns, and filled with unforgettable, lovable, thoroughly layered characters.

The most remarkable thing about Tales, in my opinion, is how much Maupin achieved with so little.  Writing within the limits of his column space, Maupin relied almost entirely on dialogue to craft his scenes.  It’s truly impressive to see how much can be conveyed simply by what is being said, as well as what isn’t; not only in terms of plot, but character as well.

There really is a kinship between Maupin and Dickens, beyond Maupin’s knowing nod of a title.  Both writers rely heavily on coincidence to move their stories along.  This never really bothered me, in either Dickens’ or Maupin’s work; though in Tales, some final developments are so out of left field that they hardly seem credible.  Other plot elements were left obviously, frustratingly wide open, but I suppose that’s why there are two further collections of Maupin’s columns available (More Tales of the City and Further Tales of the City).  I’m looking forward to reading them.

~ T

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