The Night Listener by Armistead MaupinArmistead Maupin
HarperCollins ($26)

by Brad Jacobson

People exist in your life who once were considered the very best of friends. For one reason or another, perhaps due to a change in geography, career, or love, they drop off your radar, disappearing without so much as a "good-bye" or an explanation. If you're a good person (which I am not), you do not take this abandonment to heart. You simply accept it as the way of the world, secretly hoping the person who left you behind will one day reappear to share their stories and reaffirm your dormant friendship. You will let bygones be bygones and welcome this person with open arms, pooh-pooh any tepid apologies offered, and pick up right where the two of you left off.

Nearly a decade after he abandoned his legion of fans, Armistead Maupin returns to his readers offering a laurel leaf entitled The Night Listener. Maupin endeared himself to the reading public and literary critics with his wildly successful Tales of the City series, originally serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle during the late 1970's. His cast of instantly likeable characters living at 28 Barbary Lane drew people into a powerful, entertaining story arc and kept readers enraptured for the better part of a decade. Although he may have felt he had explored all options with the tenants of Mrs. Madrigal's boarding house, many people (myself included) would welcome a return to the favored address and its infamous residents. Did wide-eyed Mary Ann Singleton patch up her estranged marriage to reformed bachelor Brian? Whatever happened to Dee Dee Day, her lover, D'Or, and their twins fathered by a grocery store delivery boy? And what about Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, perhaps the character most closely identified with Maupin himself? Did Michael finally find true love? The future seemed to offer unmined territory and Maupin deliberately decided to leave it that way.

Maybe the Moon followed the final book of the six part series and proved Maupin was still a consummate storyteller, highly adept at turning a wickedly funny phrase and creating lovable characters. How can a reader not be intrigued by the story of a woman dwarf whose only claim to fame is playing a beloved E.T.-type character? But, the fact of the matter was these were not the characters his reading public had come to regard as living, breathing people. Maybe the Moon was not a bad book, per se. It simply did not meet the standards of Maupin's previous work, and some people no doubt felt cheated by a novel with no link to the epic history of the Tales series.

Sorry to say, such is the case with The Night Listener. As with many of Maupin's novels, the book is a thinly veiled semi-autobiographical account of the birth of one relationship in the shadow of the death of another. Gabriel Noone, standing in for Maupin himself, is a well-loved writer of the radio serial "Noone at Night" who finds his personal life and creative abilities in stasis. Abandoned by his long-time lover, Jess, a man hungering to experience the most life has to offer even as he copes with his HIV status, Gabriel throws himself a pity party on an hourly basis. Much gnashing of teeth and beating of breast ensues, doing little to endear the character to the readers. No wonder Jess left this self-hating queer with the martyr complex. Gabriel finds comfort in a telephone relationship with 13 year-old Pete Lomax, a young boy who is dying from AIDS and has a wrenching story to share. You would think this would jolt Gabriel out of his myopic frame of mind, but it soon becomes clear this author is only interested in listening to his own voice, not the voice of a dying child. Certainly, Maupin tosses in a couple of lines about how awful Gabriel feels for being so self-centered, but it is largely lip service. The legitimacy of Pete's story, and ultimately of Pete's very existence, is called into question. The majority of the novel is devoted to defining the lines between reality and fantasy and to the questionable benefits of too much knowledge.

Maupin may be attempting to reveal how an artist relies upon the power of truth and illusion and how these necessary tools of the trade can often burn their master, but Gabriel never lights anywhere long enough to create a rapport with the readers. We are not given the luxury to see him as anything other than a self-absorbed cry baby who rarely acts, but, rather, allows himself to be acted upon. Gullibility, another of his major traits, might be endearing if he were a more likeable man, but he is not. In fact, no one is particularly likeable or intriguing in this novel, not even Gabriel's sassy accountant (a half-hearted connection to the Tales) or the mysterious Pete. Maupin has always been able to rely upon his strong storytelling skills, his sense of humor and his sensitive handling of character development, but for all its twists and turns, The Night Listener mostly proves that it's time to head back to 28 Barbary Lane.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000