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Significant Others by Armistead Maupin (Harper & Row: $9.95, paperback; 274 pp., illustrated)

July 19, 1987|Harry Baldwin | Baldwin is a Los Angeles writer currently completing a collection of short stories.

First, up popped "Tales of the City" in 1978, a collection of his serialized newspaper columns chronicling the hopelessly, comically tangled lives of selected fictional soul mates from widely disparate sexual, geographic and social orientations--and all this in a charmed, anything-possible San Francisco. There followed "More Tales of," "Further Tales," and "Babycakes" (a communal nickname). Now, almost 10 years later, Armistead Maupin's spool of labyrinthine plot, barbed-wire dialogue (that doesn't really sting long), and playful trend-skewering is winding its way unflaggingly on. Well, almost unflaggingly.

If you've been tracking and giggling over Maupin's jolly crew all along, no explanation is necessary; if however you come to "Significant Others" like a virgin, some explanation is possible: The first Maupin one comes upon is usually the funniest; still, this one strikes me as his most skillful balancing act yet in a self-limiting genre, especially one additionally limited by current events.

Most of the same crew reports in: the sweet gay hero, Michael (Mouse) Tolliver, the once-naive Mary Ann, now Oprah-Winfrying it on local TV; her house-husband and Michael's best straight friend, Brian (with a new Angst to grind); DeDe and D'orothea, rich lesbian lovers, and mother and step-mother respectively of Eurasian twins (see "More Tales"), DeDe's even richer stepfather, Booter Manigault, bastion of the San Francisco Bohemian Club (where white Republican males go to escape from characters like these), and Anna Madrigal, everybody's favorite enigmatic landlady, still dispensing sensimilla and sympathy, if this time only on the fringe of the plot.

But what a plot. Let me clue you, Babycakes, this one has more converging lines than "Intolerance" and more curves than Lombard Street on a drug trip. Maupin, like a chess champion, moves DeDe and D'or one summer week to Wimminwood, a lesbian music festival (no men over 10 allowed) on the Russian River, Booter upriver to Bohemian Grove (no women allowed) for his annual reactionary hootenanny, and Brian, Michael, and an instant friend of Michael's to points in-between. Also along is Wren Douglas, overweight, beautiful, detoured to the river from a book tour by none other than Booter to be his temporary mistress. When drunken Booter drifts downstream toward Wimminwood while the lesbian security guards rumble, and while Brian falls on the ample breasts of Wren. . . . Well, you had to be there (if only in spirit) to track this bucolic chessboard that comes to resemble the landscape beyond Alice's looking-glass.

But, as in all midsummer night's dreams, the unsolvable dilemmas are solved, people are bedded, unbefuddled, and sorted out, each to his and her own significant other ("Your spouse and/or lover and/or best buddy"). I was anticipating a Thurberian battle of the sexes/orientations between Wimminwood and Bohemian Grove; Maupin concentra1952805664educate his characters on the significance each holds for the other. Michael sums it up: "That's all anybody wants, isn't it? The feeling of being safe with somebody."

Maupin can then confront his biggest problem: How can he continue his comic saga about the sexual pecadillos of San Francisco gays and straights in this age of AIDS anxiety? The author like the larger society previously tip-toed around it (a lover of Michael's died in between books); can't do that anymore, dear, as Anna Madrigal might put it.

His partial solution is to reassign the sex (and the fun or the guilt of it) to the medically safe lesbians. (Michael ruefully comments early on: "If gay men could no longer snort and paw the ground in fits of purple passion, it seemed only fitting that gay women could. Somebody had to keep the spirit alive.") And the plot moving. A big chunk of the sex is provided by straight, promiscuous Wren Douglas. Is that why she seems less a fabulous new character than a large, obstructive plot device who doesn't pull her weight nearly as amusingly as, for example, Mabel, the hard-drinking gay Gabby Hayes at Wimminwood? (Mabel's scenes with Booter hold for me some of the book's comic and sentimental high points.) Poor, sweet Michael, who had already tested positive, rejects porno and safe-sex orgies for love; Brian, (after a hetero exposure) suffers agonies of fear waiting for his test results throughout the book, but finds his way back to Mary Ann's arms. You were expecting maybe "As Is?"

Oh well, Maupin isn't trying for Swift, or even Waugh; he's after affectionate fun-poking, not black comedy; skillful soap-opera farcist that he is, he knows that the deftest of souffles will flatten from too much of reality's acid. Let's give him credit for showing that AIDS is now an unfunny part--but part, not all--of his character's still laughable every-day lives and for solving, somewhat, the problem in his own sweet and sour way.

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