[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. ]
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 the Driskill, and he'd lost that after a drug bust back in 1974:
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 the Master 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."
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 amazing Robert Caro Path to Power series, will likely also not care to read The 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 or The 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.
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. Since Primary Colors often gets compared to the greats of the genre, I guess Klein used to get asked about The Gay Place pretty often. First, a little damning with faint praise:
"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...
... 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."
"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."
"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?"
"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.