Hit ‘Em Where They Live

When it comes to Texas politics, Billy Lee Brammer wrote the book.
by Published on
photo courtesy Sidney Brammer
Billy Lee Brammer in the early 1960s

Texas politics often inspires bursts of cursing, but for this issue we’ve taken a more deliberative approach. With the campaign in full swing and the legislative session around the corner, this issue focuses on the latest crop of books about Texas politics. Robert Green asks what the latest literature tells us about Davy Crockett and what his myth says about being Texan. Longtime political observer Dave McNeely examines the evolving power of Texas’ governor and House speaker. And authors Debra Monroe and Belinda Acosta write about what happens when politics gets up close and personal.

While choosing this wide-ranging selection, I was inspired by a particularly omnivorous account of Texas politics, Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place. The novel (actually a trilogy of related novellas) is set in Austin in the 1950s among a group of young Democratic legislators held sway by Gov. Arthur Fenstemaker, a character based not so loosely on Lyndon Johnson. The Gay Place is one of the great political novels of the last century. A 1961 New York Times review declared it would “be read a hundred years from now,” yet its longevity has been achieved largely by a cult status that attracts readers obsessed with LBJ, Texas politics or obscure masterpieces. Brammer should have received greater recognition for his talents, but he never seemed to recover from the rave reviews and expectations. He died at 48 of a drug overdose, having lived long enough to see his only novel go out of print. (The University of Texas Press has since reissued it.)

At first glance, The Gay Place may seem archaic: The book is an immersion into an era when Democrats ruled Texas politics, with a title that meant “the happy place” in 1961 but implied something different a few years later. Still, the The Gay Place transcends its setting by submerging its ripped-from-the-headlines plot into intoxicating, intricate prose, with main characters (often literally intoxicated) more consumed by their own demons, loves and existential concerns than the politics at hand.

Brammer was an editor at the Observer in the mid-1950s. He honed his skills here as well as his eye for the absurd. It’s a treat to dig through our dusty, crumbling archives for the work that inspired the novel. One Brammer story, “Hit ’Em Where They Live,” profiles Phil King, “king of the political hucksters,” a PR man in the mold of Karl Rove. Brammer calls King a master of “the glandular approach”—he played on fear. In those days, that meant whisper campaigns that painted the opposition as communist. In “Hit ’Em Where They Live,” Barefoot Sanders, a young, liberal legislator targeted by King, is giving a speech when someone in the audience calls him a commie. Enraged, Sanders challenges the heckler to a fistfight, then and there.

Brammer knew a good scene when he saw one. In The Gay Place, the fictional Sen. Neil Christiansen energizes his lackluster campaign by grabbing his red-baiting accuser by the collar and marching him out of an event, “feeling like a dim, flickering comedian’s image stumbling around in slow motion.” Another section of the novel takes place on a movie set in the middle of the desert, with details taken from Brammer’s Observer series about the filming of Giant in Marfa. Brammer wrote about the shell of a Victorian mansion built for exterior shots that would later become a barn: “These cattle so sumptuously housed will probably be gawked at by passersby on the highway for years to come.”

The greatest inspiration for the book came from the job Brammer took after he left the Observer—working for then-U.S. Sen. Johnson. Anyone who has seen photos of LBJ cajoling other lawmakers—leaning over and into them, emphasizing his point of view with a poke, grimace or slap on the back—will admire how well Brammer distilled LBJ’s essence onto the page. Here’s Gov. Fenstemaker convincing a young Democratic representative to help pass a education bill, though it’s not as generous as the liberals would like: “The thing to do is work through the institution—figure a way to do that—to make a change and build a city and save the goddam world from collapse. You got to work through that institution, Roy … ” Then he leaned back and flashed his shark’s smile, saying, “An’ I’m that institution currently.”

Brammer understood that Texas politics is not confined to the machinations of the Legislature. It’s a product of personalities, popular culture, class conflict, race relations and human weakness. It’s a lot to cover, but we aimed to bring a bit of Brammer’s sensibility to this summer books issue. Hope you enjoy it.

Michael May is a former Observer managing editor. He’s now a freelance journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.