Top critical review
on April 6, 2014
Armistead Maupin's most recent novel in the "Tales" series, The Days of Anna Madrigal, takes us away from San Francisco and gives us a tour of two parts of Nevada. Anna needs to clear up something in her childhood home of Winnemucca (we finally get the derivation of the town's name) and gets propped up into Brian's motor home to ride across the desert. Meanwhile Michael Tolliver and his husband are on the way to Burning Man along with what's left of the cast and crew from the previous eight books, including a gratuitous cameo from Mary Ann Singleton.
Maupin reestablishes and maintains Anna Madrigal's regal status, but she has become almost aloof, doted on, cared for, and we find ourselves merely gazing up toward her as she is enthroned and venerated, her renown spreading out before here like an ermine-lined robe. Her quest to right a wrong she committed when she was teenaged Andy takes up a great deal of the novel, gives Maupin a plot base, and results in something of a moral lesson along with the revelation that Madrigal isn't an anagram after all, but the last name of the boy she refused to have sex with back then. The boy, outed by a vindictive note that she/he wrote to his parents, kills himself, but not before he impregnated Andy's friend Margaret, a prostitute at the Blue Moon. As readers of the "Tales", we are used to such convolutions and their eventual resolution, and this one adds to the long list of bizarre stories such as flesh eaters at Grace Cathedral, was that really Jim Jones?, whose kid is whose, and other enigmas that Maupin works out over the course of the run.
Now back to Michael Tolliver, probably the other central character in the series. Here he and Ben are at Burning Man. Sometimes he's apprehensive about being there and joining in the festivities, but mostly he sits. Lots of sofa canoodling, tender exchanges, and finally what turns out to be a medical false alarm. Chapter 26 concludes with the cliff hanger, "But Michael was beyond listening." Of course, we think he's dead. But he isn't, we learn later. Maupin simply can't let him die, and after we thought he might have, we start thinking forward about what Ben will do now. (There is some foreshadowing that leads us to wonder.) Well, what he does is resume life with the Buddha-bellied Michael and off they go, ready for book number eleven.
I'm not necessarily complaining here. Maupin's style, while less sharp and compelling now than in the earlier books, still creates a world that you want to know about. It's just that this novel takes longer to get you through it, and relies on reader loyalty to achieve what serves as closure for the people we shared lives with from the 1970s. There is a lot of dialogue that does little more than let us listen in on chit chat, some of it barely reinforcing the traits and aspects of the speakers, and only on occasion, does it contribute to the plot. The back story works well, and it supplies story line and motive for the odyssey across the desert, but the conversations do little more than help pass the time on the way.
Nevertheless, I was glad to have read the book. I'm one of those loyal readers, and I wanted to again join the tribe that once lived on Barbary Lane. It's indeed `mauping' up. We get closure of sorts on everyone, but arising from the dust of the desert is Maupin's refusal to let anyone die off. The book ends, Mouse, who's had a close call with a fainting spell, and Anna, now 92 and content to go, still linger on. Tough to kill off favorite characters, isn't it? Things are getting thin, and the characters that we learned to live with and love with are not only aging physically, but literarily as well. Not much more left to be said about most of them, and there is a sense of scraping together some sort of a device that will keep things going through the narrative, some piece of bone on which to flesh out, yet again, the waning days of Maupin's aging characters.