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October 5 - October 12, 2000

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Serial thriller

Armistead Maupin returns to serialize again

by David Valdes Greenwood

CITY BOY: Maupin's latest, The Night Listener, became the first novel to appear in serialized form as an internet audio book before its release.

Armistead Maupin is a busy guy. Nearly 25 years after his Tales of the City began appearing daily in the San Francisco Chronicle, their success is still keeping him running: to Montreal, where Further Tales, the third movie installment, just wrapped filming; then to France, where the first books have only recently been discovered, simultaneously occupying three slots on the paperback bestseller list; and eventually to Japan, where Sony has just serialized them in Japanese. But that kind of cultural impact, more than most writers dream of, isn't enough to let Maupin rest on his laurels; with The Night Listener, his eighth novel, he embarks on a 22-city tour and makes a bit of history along the way.

Maupin's new book -- a mystery-like fable of a radio storyteller's blossoming connection to the mysterious fan of the title -- became the first novel to appear in serialized form (the last installment appeared September 29) as an internet audio book before its release. The internet idea is the brainchild of Terry Anderson, "my ex-partner and soulmate," says Maupin, "who read the novel first and thought of it as a serial. He approached [on-line magazine] Salon . . . and they jumped at the chance." Maupin has recorded popular audio versions of the Tales books in the past, so this isn't entirely unfamiliar ground, but he admits, "I'm always a little unsure because of the performance aspect of it." And yet, he says, "I have never written a paragraph that I didn't imagine hearing coming out of my own mouth," so this is a logical extension.

The rightness of the idea springs not only from the topic -- the protagonist, Gabriel Noone, is famous for his NPR series -- but the language of the book itself. Much of it involves late-night telephone conversations and the interior monologues of Noone as he searches his soul to understand his failing romance as well as his budding paternal relationship with the young caller. From the book's opening lines, he addresses us; when he says, "I know how it sounds when I call him my son. There's something a little precious about it, a little too wistful to be taken seriously," Noone is asking for understanding and opening a new connection, this time with the reader. And when Salon's listeners (or those who buy the audio book version) hear Noone's voice, it will actually be Maupin's, which will make the experience seem that much more deeply authentic -- which, being fiction, it's not.

Maupin and Noone may have a lot in common -- both have endured break-ups with younger, HIV-positive lovers, and Noone's family stories are drawn from Maupin's life -- but the author is adamant about drawing distinctions between the two. "I've played fast and loose with the facts in every direction," he warns, and he sounds irked to add the disclaimer, "My fiction is my fiction; I don't want there to be any entanglement with other events." But he can understand how the line blurs when Noone's break-up so resembles his own, and he admits that this novel was a good way to examine his personal affairs, saying, "Some of our pain is meant to make us grow, but it's hard to see that in the midst of it. The process of writing this helped me to see a little better."

Another echo of real-life that permeates the novel is that the title character, a 13-year-old with AIDS who writes a novel after having been abused as a child -- is strongly reminiscent of Anthony-Godby Johnson, whose 1993 memoir A Rock and a Hard Place, made media headlines, first for the adolescent author's emotional maturity, and then when critics began to doubt the story's authenticity. As in The Night Listener, a famous gay writer (in this case Maupin's peer, Paul Monette) wrote the foreword and then found himself defending the book's truth. Maupin is unhappy with the mention of that case, and only when pressed, admits not only that the two stories have "some details in common," but that he blurbed an edition of Godby-Johnson's book. Reticence about the similarities aside, Maupin has done something in his novel that Godby-Johnson's readers never got in real life: he provides closure, with an ending perhaps as provocative as the scenario itself. (In real-life, the controversy faded out of the headlines and the book continues to circulate.)

To arrive at that ending, Maupin puts the readers through the kind of hairpin turns and reversals that fairly cry out for serialization, like Thomas Hardy's novels did in the 19th century. Though it might be hard for modern readers to imagine, Return of The Native was first a magazine serial, as popular in its time as Tales became in our own. Whether Maupin ends up canonized in literature remains to be seen, but he's pretty comfortable with his status already. Though Noone says he feels like he'd "broken into the Temple of Literature through some unlocked basement window," it's been a long time since Maupin felt that way. "I'm more secure about my gifts than Gabriel. I currently have a healthy ego." But what feeds this, he says, is not remaining in print for a quarter century, or even going global -- it's his audience.

"I get extraordinary feedback from readers," he says, describing a recent encounter in Brighton England which brought home the power of his work. A woman app-roached him and asked about a storyline in which recurrent Tales' character Mouse gets Guillian-Barre syndrome. She had come down with the affliction, which can cause temporary or permanent paralysis, three weeks earlier; lying immobilized in a hospital bed, she had feared death. What got her through was friends reading aloud from Tales of the City; Mouse's survival, she told a tearful Maupin, made her own seem possible.

That's a pretty unbeatable recommendation for storytelling. But Maupin has long recognized the power of the spoken word, which captivated him as a child tuned in to radio serials. "I loved listening to mystery stories. They expanded my imagination. Like a book, radio forces you to create the visuals." While those radio days are long over, Maupin -- having conquered print and screen already -- has neatly bridged the eras by bringing the radio-play technique into a new century via the internet.

The happily full nature of his life these days may best be summed up by an anecdote from his recent trip to Montreal. He was recording The Night Listener on one floor of a studio building when he discovered -- and this was coincidental -- that Showtime was shooting some last footage of Further Tales on a floor above. It was a gratifying moment, embracing the span of his career thus far. "One part of my life was represented on one floor, and on the other floor, another life," he says with a bit of a sigh, ". . .another part of my love."

David Valdes Greenwood can be reached at valdesgreenwood@worldnet.att.net..


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