The Johnson Treatment
Don Graham rereads The Gay Place.
In 1961, the year Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By helped drag Texas fiction into the twentieth century, another debut novel did the same thing. Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place, containing “Three Related Novels,” took its title from a Scott Fitzgerald poem, and in only a few short years it was being misshelved in stores. It still is. When the latest paperback edition came out in 1995, I found it in the Gay and Lesbian Studies section, sandwiched between Gender Outlaw and Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition.
But the “gay” in Brammer’s world is from an older use of the word—designating a place where people are happy—and each story dramatizes the pursuit of such joy. The action takes place in a sprawling, unnamed Southwestern state whose governor is an Isaiah-spouting corn pone politician named Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker—based on Lyndon B. Johnson, for whom Brammer once worked. In each section an educated, disillusioned young man confronts the facts of political life against a purer version, which in Brammer’s closely observed human comedy does not exist.
The first section, “The Flea Circus,” many readers consider the best. Several of its scenes are set at the Dearly Beloved Beer and Garden Party (Austin’s Scholz Garten), where young politicos drink, ponder existentialist thoughts, and swap dirt on colleagues caught up in the latest chicanery at the Capitol. The mood is one of dissipation and smart talk, a sort of Lost Generation down Texas way. Without Fenstemaker to breathe life into the desiccated young men of the novel, the book would be entirely a triumph of style over substance. But he is a brilliant creation, and for my money, the third section, “Country Pleasures,” which places the crafty politician in peril, is the most compelling. Much of it takes place near what is most certainly Marfa, where the governor and his entourage, including his hilarious rube brother, Hoot Gibson Fenstemaker (read: Sam Houston Johnson), visit the set of a film that is unmistakably Giant. Here the governor’s sexual appetite gets him into serious trouble, and Brammer’s talent for capturing the shallow surfaces of inconsequential people is superbly displayed.
Outside Texas, notables such as David Halberstam and Gore Vidal praised The Gay Place, but J. Frank Dobie didn’t like it any better than he liked Horseman, Pass By, noting in his copy that “nobody actually every [sic] does anything but drink and drink & drink to boredom & screw, & screw & screw to death—the great governor’s climax.” While McMurtry’s novel would be followed by many more, The Gay Place was the end of Brammer’s career as a novelist. He labored for years on a follow-up but never completed it. A cherished figure in Texas literary circles, Brammer drifted further into drug use until he died, a one-book author, in 1978 at the age of 49. But his portrait of Texas in transition from a fading rural provincialism to a more sophisticated urban angst ensured him a permanent niche in the state’s literary pantheon.