What did I think?
I thought at first that Michael Tolliver Lives was the cleffy cleffiest Roman a clef I had ever read, and what, quite, was the point. (I kept hearing in my head--meanly--Herb Caen's description of Armistead Maupin as "part-time writer and a full-time personality.") The book is, especially at the beginning, one long apologia for Maupin's--Michael's--life with his much younger husband. Not only that, it's written in the first person, rather than as the Narrator to End All Narrators, pulling strings, making people dance, as Maupin did in the first books. It's not a huge surprise, though--Sure of You looks very much in retrospect like a transition from those early books to this one. Not-quite-first-person.
So I found it a little hard-going, if interesting (rabid fandom) at first. The book had Maupinesque observation, but not the gleeful potting and omniscience and complete ruthlessness about and attention to EVERYBODY, every class/gender/orientation, whatever. It feels like there's just the thinnest tissue between "Michael" and Maupin in this book, to the point where you sometimes are surprised when Michael talks about his gardening career and not his writing.
However--HOWEVER. This book gains momentum. Some of the old magic comes back, much in the form of Michael's brother--
NOTE: I have looked and looked; I can't remember. Did Michael ever mention this brother before? Is he the "Bubba" in "Dear Mama"? Irwin works pretty well as a character, but I did feel kinda as if he were made up for the story...anyhow--
--and plotting relating to the contrast/connection with Michael and this bible-beatin' brother, also in the form of a hairdresser/stripper Patreese tending to his ailing mother (who also provides a more vivid realization of the concept--found in Maupin's other books too--of the fact that human sweetness and generosity fuel three-ways, not just horniness).
More than that, Maupin sets up a late in life, what-would-you-do conflict regarding his mother and Anna that takes balls, literary balls. And that ruthless Maupin eye. He (to quote Dorothy Sayers) "pins the argumentum ad hominem with a kind of relish" in this situation, leaving no room to squiggle out. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about his character's decision in the end, but I admire Maupin very much for creating the situation.
And the construct provides the chance for a little understated but effective reunion and SF magic realism at the end. I could have used a little more Brian, overall, but I was happy--and bawling my head off--when I finished the book. So I guess it worked. Maybe Maupin makes things look too easy sometimes--I should reread this book when I wasn't so hyper about it--but for now: a teary-eyed thumbs up.