Great Books: Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place

Billy Lee Brammer's The Gay Place is a masterpiece, providing an insight into the imaginative world of LBJ's America.
LBJ points to the camera on the campaign trail
President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) pictured waving to supporters and crowds of spectators from the door of a limousine during the 1964 presidential election campaign trail in October 1964. Credit: Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images
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‘The country is most barbarously large and final. It is too much country – boondock country – alternately drab and dazzling, spectral and remote. It is so wrongly muddled and various that it is difficult to conceive of it as all of a piece.’ Those are the opening sentences of a great and now almost forgotten novel, The Gay Place, by Billy Lee Brammer. The title comes from a Scott Fitzgerald poem: ‘I know a gay place/ Nobody knows.’  That is a clue to one of the principal though covert themes.

When the book came out in 1961, it was hailed as the first major Texan novel and possibly the greatest American political novel yet, all this from a new writer of unlimited promise. As Lyndon Johnson had just become Vice-President and the main character was modelled on him, that helped to focus attention on the political aspects. But there is far more to this book than politics. This might seem a paradoxical assessment. The book’s commanding presence, Governor Arthur Fenstemaker, is larger than several lives. He dominates the action, and all the other characters, by force of personality and his rip-roaring use of language.

 ‘Goddam’ he says to his black butler, early in the book.

‘Sir?’

‘I’m just Goddammin.’

We must remember that in Texan, ‘Goddam’ is not a matter of two crisp syllables. As wide as the Rio Grande, as big as a Stetson hat, it is pronounced ‘Go-o-o-day-um.’  That is ‘Goddammin’.

Although the governor is a great comic figure, he is not just a Texan Falstaff. The very name contains a clue. Fenstemaker means window-maker, and the governor does indeed make windows, into race relations, the future of Texas, other men’s souls –though not his own. In the same conversation with the somewhat nervous butler, the governor asks him whether matters are improving for ‘coloured’ people. He is unhappy that so much of his own official correspondence deals in platitudes: ‘We can’t tolerate second-class citizens in this free country… I’m sure gonna do what I can…Try to make reasonable progress toward a solution… sure keep your views in mind.’ Then he explodes. ‘Why Goddamn! Some cornpone Buddha say that to me I’d set a bomb off under him.’

Fenstemaker uses populism and Goddammery to conceal the truth. He is a moderniser and a liberal in a state which is by no means ready for either. The parallels with LBJ are self-evident. Johnson won his first Senate election by mobilising the inhabitants of the cemetery precincts in Duval County, Texas. He played Texas politics, and then the politics of the Senate, according to the rules of the time: a closet liberal in a ten-gallon hat, delivering movement and change by being careful not to stampede the conservatives, and the segregationists. Helping to educate a young politician, Fenstemaker expounds his political philosophy. ‘You want to overturn the existing institution, that’s fine. But you got to be sure you know how to build a better one. The thing to do is work through the institution… An’ I’m that institution currently.’

There is a further paradox. From the outset, Brammer was fascinated by LBJ. As a youngster, he went to work in the then Senator’s office, becoming a speechwriter and court intellectual. It was an improbable partnership. As the journalist Al Reinert put it: ‘Johnson was big and physical, expansive, a legendary dynamo of flattery and vanity and backroom savvy… while Billy Lee was passive, ambivalent, and introspective, a small, underfed intellectual and a closet novelist.’ This relationship could not have worked unless Brammer had come to share LBJ’s absorption in all aspects of politics. He did, so he became ‘the first and last intellectual whom Lyndon Johnson ever really trusted.’

Indeed, he virtually joined the Johnson family. Like the tribal chief whom he closely resembled, Johnson had a gift for taking over his aides’ lives. For three years, the young man seemed enthralled by his boss and few people ever got as close to LBJ as he did. But ultimately, Brammer was a novelist, who could only practice his craft by breaking free from the constraints of politics to explore other dimensions of the human condition. His characters had to live. He even physically distanced himself from LBJ, moving to New York to devote himself to writing, though he returned for the 1960 election campaign.

The Gay Place consists of three novella. In each one, a younger politician joins the governor centre-stage. They all have points in common. Two of them are in elective office. Neither is sure he belongs there. Two are in stricken marriages, the third in a hopeless pursuit of another man’s wife. There is longing and lust, powerfully and plangently expressed, but little sex and less contentment. All three protagonists are threatened by aching hollowness; all three try to assuage it by too much drink. One girl suggests that they look for a gay place, to find happiness. They never find it.

In both history and literature, the accidental man is a fascinating figure. Hamlet is the laureate. ‘The time is out of joint/O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.’ Other examples, from fiction and real life, are Orestes, Erasmus, Lord Falkland and Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei. Was Rosebery an accidental man, or was he just a narcissist?

1950s Texas: surely no country for accidental men. Yet Brammer creates three of them, all in thrall to the governor, all aware of his faults, all aware how they are being manipulated: all ready to follow their leader. ‘I love-hate that woman’ said Sir Ronald Millar, playwright and speechwriter, about Margaret Thatcher: ‘I can’t tell you how much I love-hate her.’ All three Fenstemaker acolytes could have echoed those words, yet all would have been with him to the end.

Real-life Brammer did not get that chance. After the book appeared, he was expelled from Paradise. LBJ never forgave him, and one can understand why. Lady Bird Johnson appears in the book as Sweet Mama Fenstemaker, but is just a cipher: cold and negligible. As for Fenstemaker himself, a more secure man than LBJ might have been flattered as well as furious. Although the book portrays his faults, he is never belittled. Others were doing the belittling and arousing his insecurities.

John Kennedy chose him as Vice-President to help win votes in the South. But once he took office, LBJ rarely enjoyed himself. He did not belong in Camelot. The best and the brightest with whom JFK surrounded himself did not see the point of him. To them, he was a hick and a vulgarian and they nick-named him ‘Uncle Corn Pone.’  John Nance Garner, another Texan who was Franklin Roosevelt’s first Veep, declared that the vice-presidency was not worth a pitcher of warm spit (there are claims that he used a ruder word). At moments, LBJ might have agreed. Then assassination propelled him to the White House, achievement, and tragedy. He passed more Civil Rights legislation than Kennedy would have managed, but his Presidency was broken by Vietnam, a war he inherited from Kennedy and his acolytes. As LBJ plunged into unpopularity, the insecurities came back. Nixon, similarly afflicted, pulled himself out of despair to a happier old age. There was no such respite for Johnson. There is an irony. In a country that prides itself on log-cabin-to-White-House opportunities for all, two almost great presidents were destroyed, in part by snobbery.

Billy Lee Brammer was always fragile. From the outset, he took a lot of drugs. At times, his prose can seem effortless. Scott Fitzgerald was a major influence. As Reinert puts it: ‘Those soft undulating sentences that seduce the mind, whisper to the heart.’ The first draft on the route to what became The Gay Place was entitled The Heavy Honeyed Air. His publishers instantly realised that this was a young writer of rare promise. The components of The Gay Place were written in reverse order. The third novella, The Flea Circus, which became the first in the book, is the best of the three. Its lyricism, pace and characterisation cross the frontier into greatness. Everyone assumed there would be more to follow. Although LBJ may have been vindictive, that had no influence in literary circles.

Alas, from then on, it was downhill all the way. Being ostracised by the Johnsons aroused all Brammer’s insecurities. No amount of encouragement from other writers and editors seemed to bring him consolation. Disappointments, drugs, divorces: above all, he never produced anything publishable. Fine prose only seems effortless when the author succeeds in wiping off the sweat marks. The stress of brain sweat is harder to efface. American male novelists appear to be a vulnerable breed. John Kennedy Toole is the most obvious example, but Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck – none of them made old bones. Billy Lee died at 49, leaving an aching sense of what might have been, but also a great novel which deserves to be much better known.

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