As painful as it is to say—and I write as someone for whom Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was an integral and beloved part of my coming out lo, these 40 years ago—his new memoir, Logical Family, is wan and prosaic and, with the exception of a few chapters, disappointingly dull. In fact, Logical Family highlights (presumably unintentionally) one of the inescapable facts about Maupin as an author: he’s not an especially great writer.
To be sure, he hit that trifecta of perfect timing, excellent luck, and great connections with Tales, and he created characters who were familiar and deeply haimish for anyone who lived in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s—or who simply dreamed of it, as so many of us did. This was, of course, decades before San Francisco was officially taken off life support and declared not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. Oz is no more: but it was once, and Maupin both documented and helped invent it.
With that considerable credit being given where it is certainly due, let us be honest and say that Maupin is no prose stylist (I might make an exception for The Night Listener), and that weakness is on display in this memoir. Written in relentless chronology (“I did this, then I did that, and next I did the other thing”), Logical Family never precisely catches fire. There are, to be sure, sparks when Maupin writes, in his concluding chapters, about his parents, but that’s an exception.
More than anything, Logical Family leaves a lot unsaid: How did Maupin make the transition from being the scion of a Confederate-flag-loving, military-worshiping, right-wing family to queer activism? Other than perceiving the need to defend himself and his friends against the homophobic, North Carolingian nonsense he grew up with, did he interrogate and overcome the other ugly phobias and prejudices of his natal environment? (Interestingly, having a queer son or brother seemed to have affected his arch-conservative father and Trump-voting brother not at all—surely that left a mark.) And what really made Maupin so reticent—as a military officer surrounded by men who were either literally throwing themselves at him or who were, at least, available—to lose his virginity? In Logical Family, all that becomes a series of wry anecdotes, but don’t expect Maupin to reflect deeply on his self-constructed closet.
A secondary irritation of the book is Maupin’s awkward name dropping; more than one chapter begins with some version of this: “When my friend, [INSERT NAME OF HOLLYWOOD STAR], invited me….” Yes, I suppose it was important, both for the truth of his history and for book sales, to include those names, but was there really no less self-conscious way to do it? As a case in point, Maupin’s relationship with “Rock” becomes wearying in its superficiality. Hudson is but another anecdote, and there is very little there, there. (Christopher Isherwood, on the other hand, manages to come to life in Maupin’s story.)
What most clearly emerges in Logical Family is that Maupin is a nice guy who avoids controversy, doesn’t dwell on negatives, is generally pleased with himself and his life, and never met a bygone he wouldn’t pat on its back and send on its way. The question then perhaps becomes whether that’s the sort of guy who ought be writing a memoir about his part in one of America’s most important social movements or about his survival of one of history’s great plagues. Maupin is, in significant ways, the grandfather of us all, and he merits respect and gratitude, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish he’d written a better memoir.