Part I: Catching the first light

[I decided I wanted to spend a couple or three posts over some Wednesdays focusing on one of my favorite books, the man who wrote that book, and the characters and setting.The Gay Place is a novel made up of three smaller novellas. It’s mostly about politics and politicians, and most of the action occurs in 1950s Austin. I wanted to ruminate some on it here because it’s got a lot to offer anyone addicted to that ol’ political crack monkey and also because while it’s widely regarded as a masterwork, it’s still considered somewhat obscure. ]

p>Had he lasted till now instead of burning out three decades ago, Billy Lee Brammer would have been 80 years old yesterday. But Billy Lee didn’t make it.

He died of a drug overdose in February, 1978, something that didn’t seem to surprise anyone who knew him. The last few years of his life weren’t kind, he’d run out of health and money, hadn’t held a job since he’d lost a gig as a cook in theDriskill, and he’d lost that after adrug bust back in 1974:

He had over an ounce of pure crystal methedrine in his pocket on the night he was arrested, quite by accident, having caught a ride with a friend who proved to be the subject of a statewide police alert and was soon zooming down South Lamar in Austin barely ahead of several patrol cars. Following the inevitable smash-up, there was a bit of a shoot-out, Billy huddling all the while on the floor of the back seat frantically groping for the plate-glass bifocals he needed to see with. He looked so incredibly harmless that not even the police could take him for a criminal. It was two hours before they bothered to search him, but it had been years since he’d had his hands on a whole ounce of speed and he just couldn’t bring himself to throw it away.

So that was the beginning of the down-and-out end of Billy Lee Brammer, a man who’d once been the epitome of an insider’s insider. He’d been a confidant so close to theMaster of the Senate and future president that he even ghost-wrote LBJ’s letters home to LadyBird and the girls. An intellectual who rubbed shoulders with everyone from Ann Richards to Eliot Janeway to Ken Kesey, Brammer also served as mentor and influence to a seemingly endless list of authors, journalists, editors, even musicians and actors.

Billy Lee Brammer was a short soft-spoken Texan who once, just once, wrote a book, The Gay Place.

That’s right, just the one, and it wasn’t just a good book, but a great one. No less than Gore Vidal called it “an American classic,” Willie Morris
said it was “the best novel about American Politics in our time.”

There are two classic American political novels. One is All the King’s Men…the other is The Gay Place, a stunning, original, intensely human novel inspired by Lyndon Johnson…It will be read a hundred years from now.” — David Halberstam, New York Times Book Review

Glowing as Halberstam’s review may be, I’d argue that the book was not inspired by Lyndon Johnson, at least not originally. Those who are still invested in perceiving LBJ in only one dimension, the people who won’t even deign to read the amazingRobert CaroPath to Power series, will likely also not care to readThe Gay Place. In both instances, it’s their loss if they really are interested in American political history, about how politics really works. Neither Caro’s books orThe Gay Place are truly “about” or inspired by the real or fictionalized LBJ. They’re about power, about how someone with that much power thinks and operates and achieves or fails.

—–

In his 2005 essayWhy Americans can’t write political fiction. Chris Lehmann calledThe Gay Place “the one truly great modern American political novel.”

Unlike most novelistic chroniclers of our politics, who got their first close-up views of politics as either journalists (Klein), political confidants (Adams, Twain, and Warren), or mere consumers of news (Beinhart), Brammer wrote of the political from a true insider’s vantage. He had been a press flack and speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson during his illustrious arm-twisting, back-slapping, and deal-making career as Senate majority leader. As such, Brammer described himself as unapologetically “pro-politician”–the sort of literary disclaimer that only seems to be necessary in American letters.

Brammer’s inside view helped him, first of all, to bring off a deceptively simple inversion: For him, politicians are not the tempters in the garden of American innocence. They are moral protagonists. As political animals, they’re accustomed to honoring few clear distinctions between their messy, conflicted, adulterous, and boozy lives and their obligations to the public weal, and so they are not in the business of sacrificing one for the sake of the other. This means, among other things, that they have few two-dimensional virtues to jeopardize and no melodramatic Victorian corridors of power in which to sully themselves. Brammer’s protagonists are all sublimely self-aware adults: They bed each other’s spouses and broker parliamentary support with the same bleary-eyed aplomb, and reflect openly about the shabby compromises and disappointments they spring on themselves as they imagine they are doing good.

Oh, and then there’s Joe Klein. SincePrimary Colors often gets compared to the greats of the genre, I guess Klein used to get asked aboutThe Gay Place pretty often. First, a little damning with faint praise:

While it isn’t exactly the classic its fans suppose (Brammer is compared with everyone from Dickens to James Joyce in a series of introductions, forwards and mad gushings prior to the text itself), it still reads pretty well after 20 years

One not so charitable to Joe Klein might also point out that, at great personal cost (that’s a whole other post) Brammer actually puthis real name on his political novel. Whatever. Klein also tosses off this little bon mot:

Brammer’s unwitting triumph was to discover the perfect structure for communicating the exasperating unreality of the master politician.

I’ve met a few people here and there who haven’t liked the book, but even those people wouldn’t describe anything about it as “unwitting.”

Then the Governor rang off without formality. He dialed another number on the phone and waited during the six or seven rings. He pressed the disconnect and dialed again. After another interval, Roy Sherwood answered.

“What’re you doin’?” Fenstemaker boomed.

“Sleeping,” Roy Sherwood said. “Real good, too.”

“Hell of a note,” Fenstemaker said. “World’s cavin’ in all round us; rocket ships blastin’ off to the moon; poisonous gas in our environment… Sinful goddam nation… laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers. My princes are rebels and companions of thieves…

“What?”

… A horror and a hissing…”

“Who the hell is this?”

“Isaiah,” Fenstemaker said. “The Prophet Isaiah.”

“I’m going to hang up in just about three seconds,” Roy said, “but first I’d really like to know who the hell this is?”

“Arthur Goddam Fenstemaker. Hah yew?”

“I think it really is,” Roy said after a moment. “Governor? That you?”

“Come over the Mansion and see,” Fenstemaker said. “You like watermelon? I got some damn good watermelon. You come over here and we’ll break watermelon together.”

Roy’s response was plaintive but respectful: “It’s awful early in the morning for breakfast.”

“Nearly eight.”

“I know,” Roy said. “That gives me nearly three hours sleep.”

“Well, you’re a young man. I needed five.”

Roy was silent.

“You come over and talk to me about this bill?” Fenstemaker said.

“What bill’s that?”

“That school thing you did for Jay. Damn good job.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it. But what do you want to talk about?”

“About when you’re gonna get off your ass and pass it for me.”

“Pass it. Hell, I’m just the ghost writer. Passin’ it is your—”

“I mean take charge in that madhouse.”

“Hah?”

“I mean floor-manage for me.”

“You sure you got the right man, Governor? I never in my life—”

“I got you, all right,” the Governor said. “Roy Emerson Sherwood. Non-practicin’ lawyer. Family’s got cattle, little cotton. Never struck no oil, though. Elected sixty-third Legislature. Reelected without opposition to sixty-fourth, sixty-fifth. Never did goddam thing here till you wrote that bill the other day…”

“You got the right man, I guess,” Roy said. “You help me with that bill on the floor?” “When you plan to bring it up?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow! Godalmighty—”

“Day after, maybe. Come on over here.”

“Governor, I couldn’t learn the number that bill, condition I’m in right now. Let me sleep a little. Just a little. Let me think about it.”

“Sinful goddam nation… Laden with iniquity… My princes are—”

“Al! right,” Roy said wearily.

“How you like your goddam eggs?” the Governor said.

[Next week, part 2]

4 thoughts on “Part I: Catching the first light

  1. Proudhon says:

    I haven’t read The Gay Place in more than 20 years, and had just about forgotten I’d ever read it at all – as soon as I post this comment the rereading begins! Great book, great post – thanks!

  2. The Other Sarah says:

    OMG, that sounds like … I need to read that.

  3. jtdoode says:

    The Gay Place is one of my favorites. I’ve read it no less than half a dozen times in the last 30 years. Every single time it rings as true as the first. Having lived in long ago Austin and feeling like I know the settings make me wish for the city as it was in the books. I’ve never really understood why it is not better known. The section based loosely on some version of the filming of a fictional Giant is remarkable.
    I was lucky enough to visit San Marcos and study drafts of the sequel. In those pages were the seeds of a novel that would have been equally as much fun to read.
    A different slant on politics, but which I now think should be mentioned in the same breath as Gay Place is Ethan Canin’s, America, American, which provides the logical evolution of the political manuvering and power of The Gay Place.

  4. virgotex says:

    thanks for the Canin rec jtdoode, I’ll check it out.
    I’m privileged to work at the university you mention and the Southwestern Writers Collection and the Witliff Collections in general are without a doubt, stunning jewels in our crown. Don’t know if you’ve heard but they also recently acquired Cormac McCarthy’s papers and Jim Hightower, in true populist spirit, DONATED his archives to the collection.
    On the 40th anniversary of GP’s publication, Texas Monthly and the SWC co-hosted a tribute evening with readings and recollections of Brammer contemporaries. Both his ex wives, his daughters and son, and a room full of beautifully aged 50’s era hipsters and political movers and shakers were there. I’ve been to all kinds of events, concerts, readings, etc, and that night was an unforgettable standout. Living history, you know? There was some reading from Fustian Days as well as Shelby and Sidney Brammer’s screenplay adaptation of GP. (That was 8 years ago-they’ve just previewed an excerpt of the film in Austin. Title is Flea Circus. I’m looking forward to the final release. )

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