Billy Lee Brammer VALERIE FOWLER Earl Long and an earlier Texas incumbent, Beauford Jester. But Johnson was closely enough associated with the slightly risque portrait of Fenstemaker \(who dies, as they would later stonewall Brammer and prevent him from fulfilling a contract for a Johnson biography. It doesn’t take much to shock a politician, at least in public; The Gay Place is a largely genteel rendering of three brief episodes in state politics, told in three interlocking novellas. The very first thing one notices is how little has changed at the statehouse in 40 years: The 1955 legislature stands firmly opposed to “bastardy” and in favor of cutting welfare for unwed mothers. Governor Fenstemaker looms large throughout, but the protagonist of each story stands, officially speaking, in Fenstemaker’s shadow. In “The Flea Circus,” liberal state legislator Roy Sherwood hesitantly romances a colleague’s estranged wife while reluctantly floor-managing the governor’s reformist education bill; in “Room Enough to Caper,” interim Senator Neil Christiansen watches his family and his principles dissolve as the governor manipulates him into running for reelection; the final segment, “Country Pleasures,” plants the governor and his press secretary, Jay McGown, amidst the uneasy bacchanalia surrounding a moviein-progress. \(“Country Pleasures” is partly based upon director George Stevens’ 1955 Texas production of, yes, Giant, which Brammer covered for the Observer. Full disclosure also requires acknowledging that a charmingly romanticized version of this thenfledgling journal, edited by a hard-drinking, hard-loving transliteration of Willie Morris, figures prominently in “The Flea The Gay Place is undoubtedly the classic novel of Austin, Texas, yet it’s important to note that Brammer took considerable painsas any native enthusiast should recognizenever explicitly to name either city or state, anywhere in the book. His notquite-Texas is a grandly mythologized southern American state, and although the re-named landmarks are familiar enough, his not-quite-Austin is neither the traditional mecca of perennial Lone Star nostalgia, nor the “gay place” that the novelist wistfully lifts from Fitzgerald for a faux edenic epigraph: “I know a gay place / Nobody knows.” Forty years and a sexual revolution later, the resonance of the novel’s title has been virtually lost, but in any event “gay” here means for Brammer its oppo site: The novel is suffused with a romantic melancholy heavy as a hill country thunderstorm. In “Country Pleasures,” as his personal and political life crashes down around him, a drunken Jay McGown ruefully imagines a private retreat far from the madding crowd: “It’s all cool and mossy down there like I said and it could be made into a really gay place for the right sort of people.” Ah, but who are the “right sort”? Bram mer’s protagonists, old-school liberals who spend much of their time drinking, brooding, and wishing they were someone else with someone else, are ill at ease with each other and uncomfortable in their chosen profession of politics, wanting to do the right thing but unhappy at having to get their hands dirty in the process. They fear and mistrust Fenstemaker, yet it seems only he can get them moving, despite themselves. Painfully self-conscious, they pale before the governor’s blazing political heatlamp, and the moral crisis of each novella turns on the question of “manhood”: the man of thought vs. the man of action, “amateurs” vs. “professionals.” Sherwood compares himself and his rightthinking cronies to the governor, and wonders at Fenstemaker’s olympian abilities: “The truly able, it appeared, had only so much time to squander on disillusion and self-analysis. Then those destructive vanities were turned round and put to the business of doing what had got to be done. The truly gifted, as opposed to the merely clever, were too busy running things to be bothered.” The Gay Place is vividly keen on “the truly able” in actionBrammer’s prose comes most alive when his love of politics is physically embodied in Fenstemaker’s brilliant deviousness. But the melancholy heart of the book is devoted to the self-absorbed ruminations of “the merely clever,” with much time to squander on their “disillusion and self-analysis.” The three reluctant heroes are reasonably distinct as characters, yet echo each other as representative cultural figures: unhappy, uneasy and uncertain American males and \(especially in of Brammer as intellectual gentlemen-in-waiting to the king. Graham notes the recurrent modernist allusions throughout the bookto Eliot, Joyce, Ford, Fitzgeraldand they mainly seem to occur in the monologues of the main characters, when they are reflecting upon their inadequacies, trying to decide what to do, even contemplating suicide. It is too tempting to read Brammer’ s own meteoric careerone brilliant novel followed by a dissolute obscurity and early deathin light of the frozen capacities of his characters. To its credit, his novel resists a comfortable resolution on the nature of “manhood,” and it doesn’t idealize political success. The great Fenstemaker ends in embarrassing bathos, and throughout there’s a sense that all these public men may have betrayed their best instincts and their loved ones for the proud “business of doing what had got to be done.” As anyone can testify who has watched our elected representatives in “action,” that too can be a vain and destructive illusion, and one that the novel holds up to harsh light. Even further in the shadows of The Gay Place is a Texas barely dreamed of in the segregated parlors of its hereditary leaders. A black butler serves the watermelon at Fenstemaker’s breakfast caucuses; a Mexican waiter brings the beer to the writers’ tables; a couple of black secretaries drift uneasily through the poli-society parties. When Fenstemaker meets his maker amidst the movie stars, he has been for days trying telephonically to outflank a group of segregationist fanatics determined to out-demagogue him on the race question. Brammer, writing on the cusp of the civil rights movement, was fascinated by the frantic dancing of the white folks up at the big house, and he also seemed aware that it was a house of cards. It’s really too bada true and bitter loss for Texas lettersthat he left the table before he could a deal a couple more hands. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15
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