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Tales of the City's Armistead Maupin takes another trip down Barbary Lane.

It's not hard to understand why the books in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series became best sellers. What's not to love about a sweetly campy comedy of manners where gay and straight apartment house tenants squirm out of their cocoons under the wise gaze of their pot-smoking landlady? The series, first serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, gave many readers their first look at San Francisco's sexually ambiguous counterculture. It also revealed Maupin's knack for zippy dialogue, creating lovable characters instead of stereotypes and keeping the subplots merrily rolling, even if he didn't always know when to quit.

Twenty years later Maupin's latest novel, Michael Tolliver Lives, finds the unsung hero of the original ensemble still living in "Gayberry" by the Bay. Tolliver is now a 55-year-old HIV survivor married to a man 21 years his junior. Still nicknamed Mouse, he's become a landscape gardener; he wryly acknowledges the complacency of his life, where rearranging the vases on the shelf above the TV can be more satisfying than watching the box.

As in the original tales, when Mouse can't see past his own foibles or those of the people around him, his former landlady, the all-seeing tranny Anna Madrigal, steps in with a one-liner that sets everything right. (Now 85, she lives alone, having sold 28 Barbary Lane in the dot-com boom.) Like its predecessors, the novel attempts not only to show the impact of the gay liberation and AIDS but also to prove the larger value of the insights they yielded. However, because Maupin sticks solely to Mouse's perspective and doesn't skip between characters as in the original, a radical departure is required: Mouse must visit the red-state alternate universe of Orlando, Fla., to see his dying mother.

Where the Tales of the City series explored the sublimely queer distinction between "biological" and "logical" kin long before Friends made the concept mainstream, Tolliver Lives rather concretely weighs those two kinds of love in relation to the most important women in Mouse's life: his mother and Anna Madrigal. Since it's not that hard to guess which way the scale will tip, Maupin jacks up the family drama without entirely satisfying results. Then again, the chief pleasure of a Maupin novel was never really its plot.

Maupin, who's now 63 and recently married a man some 27 years younger in Vancouver, Canada, in February, still elicits sympathy less from his characters than from their circumstances--like contending with anxiety about sexual competition and aging, career ambition (or lack of it), overbearing family members, and oppressive cultural mores. (Let's face it: Mary Ann Singleton was a judgmental social climber who dumped a dependent child on her former boyfriend so she could move to New York City.) So Mouse may be a smug wiseass who aims for predictable political targets, but it's hard not to identify with his struggles and love him for his zingers.

In Tolliver Lives, Maupin's most poignant theme is what it's like to endure "the double whammy of HIV and advancing age." It's not just the irony of "those odd little supermarket resurrections" when someone you hadn't heard from in years unexpectedly appears and says "Hey, you're supposed to be dead." There's also the cosmic joke of finding that high cholesterol and arthritis medicine now competes for medicine cabinet space with Viramune and Combivir. These may be familiar themes, but few authors can pull them off with such a feel-good vibe.

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