In 1989, after I graduated from college, I jumped into my friend Karen’s car and drove west to San Francisco, like many young gay men before and after me. I found love and heartache there, activism and political awakening, friends and what I learned to call chosen family — the people I will still show up for, drop everything for, no matter what. I felt both like I was striking out on my own and following a path that others had taken before me — and to the extent that much of this was legible to me, it was thanks to a novel in that car: “Tales of the City” by Armistead Maupin.
The first in a series of nine — I did in the end read them all — this novel prepared me for how you can lose yourself there in order to find yourself, the better to be found by those who can really love you. Or, to put it another way, it was a guide to living in San Francisco.
Maupin has seen his novels go from syndicated column, to award-winning books, to television miniseries. Now he turns his attention to the story of himself, with “Logical Family: A Memoir” (Harper). “You may have already read some of these remembrances — in interviews and newspaper essays, or thinly disguised in one of my novels — so please know I reserve the right to plagiarize myself,” he says tartly in his acknowledgements.
But what follows feels very different. The story is of a young man running away, not from home but, really, to it. Maupin begins in Raleigh, N.C., the son of a family so determined to keep alive the spirit of the Confederacy that his father frogmarched his family from the church rather than listen to a sermon that hinted, even lightly, at desegregation. He grew up imagining himself a young conservative, despite the feelings he had at the sight of attractive men. He dutifully, proudly showed friends his grandmother’s sleigh bed, “made by the slaves in our family.” His grandmother assured him that you could not say the term “colored ladies,” because there were none. Or his father, as he went through puberty: “Don’t worry, son. If you ever knock up a little nigger gal, we can send her to Puerto Rico for the operation.” That sentence alone is like a gunshot held in a tea cup. The story he tells is about what it is like to be raised inside of white supremacy and to survive it.
There is an electric poignancy to the moments he describes, often when he is in the presence of the signals that led him into his own awakening as a gay man, an activist and a leftist. We begin with the Modern Civilization professor he sparred with when he was a young conservative, who eventually joined him in the Castro many years later for a toast to their both being out of the closet. There are major and minor celebrities: I won’t spoil his reveal, but a certain famous conservative who, as his newspaper editor, forbade him outing a politician; Tennessee Williams casually asking to share his joint after one of his plays; the dashing young actor, Curt Dawson, who seduced him and initiated him in the gay tradition of lovers who later become friends.
But the most beautiful of these celebrity moments comes as a near miss in the desert, where Maupin has gone to a party near Palm Springs in the hopes of meeting Rock Hudson. He instead meets Hudson’s sometime lover Jack, who doesn’t impress him at first as capable of landing a movie star (until he discovers his endowment). At a “tract house without a tract,” with Jack and other men remotely connected to Rock, he takes some recreational drugs and finds himself outside, dressed only in an old fox fur coat, having a revelation.
“I inhaled the spicy desert night and thought of my faraway mother and how she would have disapproved of this coat — my avidly fox-hunting mother who wanted no foxes harmed, ever. I apologized to the creatures on the coat, petting their patchy fur, though they looked like they hadn’t been up and about since the forties. It came to me then, in the clarifying light of a gibbous moon, that my mother, despite her occasional contradictions, should always have been my guide. I had wasted my youth trying to be my father.”
In San Francisco, he finds his people — his home and his career, love and activism, and friends — the “logical family” of the title he will have for the rest of his life. His origin story as a columnist is particularly compelling: Young reporter fails to get sources on the record for a story of Marin housewives picking up single men in the supermarket parking lot, so he writes it as fiction, and it’s a hit. The paper then folds the local edition and gives Maupin’s column away to another writer. He’s then recruited by the San Francisco Chronicle for a daily column, 800 words, five days a week, and “Tales of the City” is born.
“Queers who embolden one another to be honest can feel real exhilaration in that moment, and it can last them a lifetime,” Maupin writes. This memoir is proof of it, from a man who continues to embolden legions.
RECOMMENDATIONS: The Best Gay Literature
• “Another Country” by James Baldwin (1962): A novel of American life still unique for the complexly rendered lives of its characters — black, white, straight, gay, bisexual — set in the legendary 1950s Greenwich Village.
• “The Line of Beauty” by Andrew Hollinghurst (2004): A masterpiece describing one young man’s sexual and political awakening in Margaret Thatcher’s England at the start of the AIDS epidemic.
• “Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog” by Paul Monette (1988): Monette’s book of poems to his late lover, Roger, is not just a poetic masterpiece and a searing document of the AIDS crisis, but also a lesson in how to love.