I know that an exclamation mark would be hyperbolic, but I think that, after an 18 year absence, “Michael Tolliver Lives!” is an appropriate title. Abandoned by his author in 1989, Michael Tolliver has been up to a lot in his absence. This wasn’t originally going to be a Tales of the city book, but Maupin realised that Michael Tolliver was the perfect vehicle for an ageing gay man.
This explains why it’s written in the first person, and how everything seems to grow organically from that original concept. It can be dangerous resurrecting beloved characters after a long time away, but Maupin has let them all live and die natural lives in the interim.
The shift from third person to the first is not without its problems: unlike The Night Listener, where the narrator was addressing his hypothetical radio audience, there is no indication of whom Michael is speaking to. This is not normally a problem with other first person books, but it’s clear that Michael is addressing someone, and I refuse to believe it’s me. He reminds you of things a couple of times and he explains things that don’t strictly need explanation.
Because we’re presented the exclusive viewpoint of Michael, other characters – Brian in particular – get short shrift from Maupin. This isn’t a failing as much as it is a necessary evil. Just because one wants an author to overstuff a book doesn’t mean that they should. Maupin shows more restraint here than he has previously.
Of course, the other side of the double edged sword is that the exercise is rather more personal than any previous entry in the Tales canon. Rather like Maupin’s prior effort, The Night Listener, I found myself tearing up or even outright crying at times in the last fifty pages.
I welcomed this book because I considered Sure of You a huge downer to end the series on. Maupin doesn’t idolise his characters, and so they sometimes make horrible decisions and become people that you can easily fall out of love with – as I did with several. The character arcs from book to book actually made me worry about reading on for fear that the characters – not Maupin – would compromise themselves.
Michael Tolliver Lives is an invigorating experience. It sounds stupid, but it is “life-affirming”. Maupin writes death and loss very well, having experienced it too often first hand (this series, after all, spans pre-AIDS society to “post”), but he also writes survival. His honesty is brutal, and I don’t agree with every stance that Michael takes, but I don’t have to. I’m touched in such a way that I don’t have to internalise the whole experience. Ultimately, Michael Tolliver Lives, despite the way that it treats some characters (Mona!), feels like more of a gift from Maupin than anything else.
Mary Ann in Autumn, only recently published, promises to be a return to the original format of sprawling and unlikely storylines that intertwine in vague and strange ways. Mary Ann’s return as a focal character might set everything that was wrong in Sure of You right once and for all.