From Working for Jesse Helms to Writing ‘Tales of the City’

Jim Grimsley in The New York Times:

BookReading the memoir of a writer you know from other kinds of books can be a glimpse into the inner workings of a mind you admire, and, as in the case of Armistead Maupin’s “Logical Family,” it can unveil how a fiction-maker deals with the requirement to confront the truth. Here Maupin undertakes to recount his own story without the mask of the novel or the short story. He is telling us what matters, what really happened, how he was formed. There are two Maupins at work in these pages. One is charming, effervescent, lyrical, hilarious, a name-dropper. The other is insecure, withdrawn, and a mite tone-deaf to the world around him. That they both inhabit the book indicates the real complexity of the man himself, but the dichotomy remains unexamined.

Much of “Logical Family” is wry and sharply drawn. We learn a good deal about Maupin’s seven decades: his family background, Navy career, Southern sexual frustrations and subsequent San Francisco awakening. And his fame, of course. There are guest appearances by luminaries, including encounters with Jesse Helms, Harvey Milk, Christopher Isherwood, Richard Nixon, Rock Hudson and many more. There is a good deal of what one expects from Maupin, wit and heartache rolled up into a tidy package, so that any anecdote can bring an ache of longing and a belly laugh all in the same paragraph. There is also vivid, sharp writing, as when he speaks of his grandmother as “this stately little partridge of a woman” or describes a sunset in Vietnam as “a fine blue pencil line across the landscape, the rice paddies a patchwork of shimmering green-gold mirrors.” These stylistic high moments occur most frequently when the book hits its stride, about halfway through, about the time that Maupin moves to San Francisco and, after some struggle, begins to write “Tales of the City,” which began as a daily newspaper serial and later became a string of novels. That Maupin is thrilled with his success is understandable; he earned it after a lot of meandering, and he justly celebrates it. But this tips the balance of the book toward the kind of celebrity memoir that is hard to take seriously, to the detriment of the earlier chapters, which hint at something deeper.

More here.