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Maupin shows serious side in 'Night Listener'

While most readers recognize Armistead Maupin as the author of the whimsical San Francisco-based best-selling "Tales of the City" series, Maupin's most recent novel, "The Night Listener," proves his versatility as a thoughtful, modern novelist capable of more serious writing.

In 1976, Maupin introduced the colorful residents of 28 Barbary Lane, a cast of eccentric San Francisco residents whose intertwined lives provided an amusing journey through pop-culture history. Chronicling the lives of young soul searchers, both gay and straight, Maupin gave his characters loving dimension throughout his six "Tales of the City" books. Television producers took note of the books' appeal, going on to translate the series into a television miniseries on PBS.

After a lengthy absence from the publishing world, Maupin returns with a more serious and ambitious effort. Not surprisingly, he again uses San Francisco as a backdrop for most of the novel's events. Although "Listener" does not exactly capture the city's individuality in the same way his "Tales of the City" collection does (the novel captures the city's personality sans disco, Union Street and oddball landladies), Maupin manages to write with apparent local color.

"Listener" is set in what is obviously not mainstream America. The book's central character, Gabriel Noone, is a gay writer, whose radio show "Noone at Night" largely focuses on his personal life. Maupin introduces Noone in the context of the Castro, the heart of San Francisco's gay community.

Unlike his previous books, Maupin writes realistically, causing readers to wonder how much of "Listener" is actually autobiographical. Noone's reality-based radio show could mirror Maupin's experiences writing about his own partner, Terry Anderson.

But despite its realistic approach, "Listener" contains a fair share of implausible, although touching, subject matter.

The novel begins when Jess, Gabriel's HIV-positive partner of several years, leaves him and the couple's quiet domestic life. Maupin writes with tenderness, describing the couple's life together as bittersweet. Gabriel nurtures Jess in his sick condition, attempting to give him the best life he possibly can, while he can. As Jess's condition improves, however, he abandons his caring partner with no real explanation.

In his state of loneliness, Gabriel reflects on his career and family in smoothly incorporated flashbacks, describing his strained relationship with his conservative, South Carolinian father. Maupin does an excellent job of making the book's protagonist someone readers may easily empathize with. Baby Boomers should be able to identify with the conflict caused by generation gaps.

Shortly after Jess moves out, Gabriel receives a 13-year-old boy's disturbing memoir. Touched by the manuscript, Gabriel becomes fascinated with Pete, an HIV-positive victim of sexual abuse, who also happens to be a big fan of Gabriel's radio show.

Gabriel's interest in Pete evolves from a detached enthrallment to a telephone-based relationship. Maupin continues the theme of the father-son relationship by portraying Gabriel as a father figure. Both Pete and Gabe are needy human beings, and Gabriel can relate to Pete's illness after his past relationship with Jess. But although Maupin writes about unconditional compassion, he fails to depict the loving bond with the authenticity he uses in writing about Gabe's other relationships.

The two characters become too close a little too quickly, and the book develops the relationship at a pace that is much too rapid for the standstill the relationship eventually reaches.

Even though Maupin does use the words "father" and "son" in writing about the pair's relationship, Gabe denies the seriousness implied by these terms at the start of the novel. A disclaimer explains the nature of the duo's connection. "Pete and I were an accident, pure and simple, a collision of kindred spirits that had nothing to do with paternal urges, latent or otherwise. That much I can tell you for sure. Son isn't the right word, of course."

In addition to its strong emphasis on father-son themes, "Listener" explores homosexuality in great detail. The two themes converge in the novel; Gabriel discusses his experiences growing up and his father's own reaction to his homosexuality at the time of his mother's death. But while the book treats the subject with warmth and gentleness in some sections, the novel goes into graphic detail in others. Pete and Gabe even use sexuality as a way of getting closer; Gabriel finds himself discussing S & M and Playboy with the boy.

As Gabe's relationship with Pete grows more intimate and intense, the author becomes determined to meet the boy in person. Part of this strong desire to meet Pete stems from Gabe's affection for him, which borders on erotic at times. Another reason Gabe wishes to see Pete in the flesh is to find out whether Pete really exists.

Gabe has a theory: Pete is not the true author of the manuscript, but rather his adopted mother Donna is the person responsible for the book. This theory pushes Gabe to travel all the way to Wisconsin to uncover the writer's true identity. Along the way, he has a graphically sexual encounter at a truck stop.

After this point in the book, surprises and plot twists abound. Unfortunately, Maupin waits a little too long to present readers with this excitement, giving his audience their thrills in quick succession.

The novel ends unexpectedly as its final events culminate in Gabriel's acknowledgement of his own novel, "The Night Listener." Maupin sets up a framework in the book, further evidencing the autobiographical nature of the novel.

Overall, the book treats controversial subjects with great care and consideration. Maupin writes with an engaging and distinctive voice, giving his main character an authentic depth. Although "The Night Listener" is a far cry from Maupin's humorous debut novel, it is an interesting and absorbing read.