Armistead Maupin was born in Washington, but we’ll always think of him in San Francisco. “Tales of the City,” his account of life among the sexually diverse inhabitants of San Francisco’s 28 Barbary Lane, began life as a newspaper serial in 1974. Since then, the series has had a remarkable — and influential — run. Together, the nine volumes of “Tales” constitute a cultural touchstone that has enlarged our understanding of the varieties of human behavior.
The early stories offered a funny, large-hearted portrait of the complicated lives of the denizens of a boarding house run by the remarkable Anna Madrigal. Focusing largely, but not entirely, on the Bay Area’s gay and lesbian community, the novels struck a universal chord with their generous, incisive exploration of love, loss, loneliness, ambition and endless sexual adventuring. They also offered one of the earliest fictional treatments of the AIDS epidemic and its devastating impact.
The later, autumnal installments expanded our sense of the characters’ lives and addressed inevitable questions of aging and mortality.
Now, 40 years after it began, the series ends exactly where it should, with the luminous and elegiac “The Days of Anna Madrigal.”
Anna, the pot-smoking landlady and surrogate mother of Barbary Lane’s wildly assorted residents, has always been the moral center of this lively pocket universe. Once a boy named Andy Ramsey, Anna was raised in a brothel in Winnemucca, Nev. Recognizing his affinities at an early age, he literally reinvented himself, undergoing radical surgery and emerging as Anna Madrigal. (That name, by the way, is an anagram for “a man and a girl.”)
Relocating to San Francisco, Anna found a home and a way of life suited to her kindly, non-judgmental nature. Opening a boarding house on Barbary Lane, she gathered around her the people whose travails and occasional triumphs form the substance of these ongoing narratives. Now 92 years old, frail and beginning to contemplate “leaving like a lady,”she embarks on a final road trip to Winnemucca, where she confronts a painful memory from her distant past. Her journey ends at Nevada’s annual Burning Man festival, in the course of a reunion marked by powerful emotions and further intimations of mortality.
It’s a satisfying and appropriate ending both to Anna’s story and to the series as a whole. Seen at last in its entirety, “Tales of the City” remains an immensely readable accomplishment that wears its significance lightly. Like the volumes that preceded it, “The Days of Anna Madrigal” entertains, illuminates and — as always — leaves us wanting more.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”