By Armistead Maupin
Harper. 289 pp. $27.99.
We are past the halfway mark in Armistead Maupin's vivid and charming memoir before he explains how his Tales of the City came into being.
These stories about an ever-expanding odd lot of San Francisco residents began as a newspaper serial and became a nine-volume print bestseller and a PBS mini-series.
Long before that came a North Carolina childhood, a run as a young conservative, service in Vietnam - experiences seemingly at odds with the writer who became a literary celebrity and gay rights spokesman.
Maupin's true-life tale bears the stylistic trademarks that made his fiction popular: a knack for memorable characters, a humorous outlook even in the face of serious topics (wars, AIDS, life in the closet), and a heart-on-sleeve willingness to jerk a few tears and sprinkle plenty of fairy dust.
He peppers the long arc of his 72 years with the snappy skill of a seasoned, deadline-driven vignettist.
The horrors of Vietnam are largely absent in Maupin's fond, even romantic account of his time there as a communications officer in the Navy. He "ships out" in a Braniff airliner staffed with Pucci-wearing stewardesses. He gets to wear a "snappy black beret" and parties all night with the son of Adm. Elmo Zumwalt. A memorable set piece takes Maupin to a remote mountain post where two U.S. soldiers, each with a Vietnamese girlfriend, live almost off the grid, "quite happy in their sandbagged Shangri-La."
It wasn't Vietnam that liberalized Maupin, but San Francisco. He moved there for a job with the Associated Press in the early 1970s, just as the city was becoming a magnet for every kind of social-change movement. Maupin hit some of the town's 50 gay bars and found himself fundamentally changed by his coming out, which included meeting men at San Francisco's many gay bathhouses: "It must be said that if anything delivered me from the privileged white elitism of my youth it was the red-lit cubicles and darkened hallways and even darker mazes of Dave's Baths."
The city on the bay, with its mix of old guard and new arrivals, also provided prototypes for Mary Ann Singleton, Michael Tolliver, Anna Madrigal, and other characters introduced in 1976 at the rate of 800 words a day in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Logical Family falls off a bit at the end, as Maupin interrupts himself with name-dropping anecdotes and perhaps too much about seeking to make peace with his parents, but his memoir is never less than engaging.
This review originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.