Mess With Texas

Leaving the Gay Place: Billy Lee Brammer and the Great Society BY Tracy Daugherty. University of Texas Press. Hardcover, 448 pages. $29.

Long before Billy Lee Brammer died at age forty-eight in Austin in 1978, he’d become something his native Texas hadn’t been familiar with until he popped up: an authentic, homegrown literary legend. Katherine Anne Porter had bailed for the East Coast early, and her mandarin reputation was a horse of a paler color in any case. The grand old man of Texan letters at the time, J. Frank Dobie, was a folklorist and Western historian to whom “provincialism” was no insult and never would be.

Going by the fascinating portrait of him in Leaving the Gay Place, Tracy Daugherty’s superbly gauged and powerfully evocative new biography, Brammer was the sort of seeming outlier whose contradictions turn out to be predictive. Reared in one of Dallas’s more hardscrabble neighborhoods, he was the Depression-era son of a power-company lineman in the days when rural electricity was revolutionary. His self-taught cosmopolitanism both augured and personified an increasingly urbanized Texas’s budding worldliness.

Almost from the start, Brammer seemed bent on becoming the Lone Star State’s unlikely answer to Scott Fitzgerald, with a bit of Stendhal thrown in for leavening. As far as his admirers are concerned, he succeeded, too. Unlike Fitzgerald—or Stendhal, for that matter—Brammer owed it all to just one published novel: 1961’s The Gay Place, whose title was borrowed from Fitzgerald back when the modern meaning of “gay” wasn’t yet set in stone.

Billy Lee Brammer (second from left) and friends at Scholz Garten, Austin, Texas, 1968.

Its fame derives partly from its status as a roman à clef about Brammer’s sometime employer, Lyndon Baines Johnson. According to contemporaries, it was also a roman à clef about pretty much everyone Brammer had known in 1950s Austin while the world and Texas were sneakily and noisily changing. Early in his career, he played an unreliably idealistic Sancho Panza to Johnson’s scourge (and future biographer) Ronnie Dugger at the quixotically liberal Texas Observer. But in late 1955, LBJ lured him over to ventriloquizing the windmill’s point of view instead in heathen Washington, DC.

“I can’t believe how much he got in there,” marveled Brammer’s first wife, Nadine, reflecting on his novel. “He used everything.” That included her own infidelities; she was filing for divorce as publication day neared. It’s almost as if her estranged husband knew he’d only get one chance to use everything. His everything, anyhow, which is the only “everything” any writer—even Shakespeare—ever has.

Comprising three short novels with overlapping casts—the first two set mostly in Austin, the third featuring an expedition to the set of a movie that is obviously Giant, whose making Brammer had reported on for the ObserverThe Gay Place is peopled with misfits who are simultaneously at home in and restlessly unreconciled to an environment compounded of aimless adultery, pointed drinking, and constant discussion of Governor Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker’s latest ploy. The book’s assorted state legislators, lobbyists, timorous crusaders, and thwarted bohemians remain credible even at their most poetic, which is one of the hardest tricks of all to pull off in fiction.

Fenstemaker himself—that is, Johnson, transposed from the US Senate to the governor’s mansion but otherwise glorying in his LBJ-ness—is the most credible and, in his own way, poetic creature of them all. The obvious comparison is to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and its portrait of a barely fictionalized Huey Long, but Brammer’s knowledge of his man and the milieu he inhabited was much more firsthand.

One reason plenty of aficionados of American political fiction prefer Brammer’s novel to Warren’s is that The Gay Place is too realistic about its subject to aspire to tragedy. Vacillating between passive cynicism and equally passive sentimentality, the author’s various, bemused stand-ins know they don’t have the stature for fake Shakespeare. Another reason is that Brammer doesn’t treat Fenstemaker’s gleeful manipulation of political power as if it’s inherently evil. He isn’t a monster so much as a profane, exuberant, shrewdly clownish Prospero, wielding his guile and duplicity to slyly accomplish more for the common good than the idealists who bemoan his tacky opportunism ever manage to.

According to Daugherty, Brammer wrote most of The Gay Place on a diet of speed, candy bars, and warm Jell-O at night after putting in long days working for Johnson, pecking away in a Capitol Hill office located directly underneath Richard Nixon’s. (He used to invite colleagues in to hear the “groan of the vice-presidential plumbing.”) Yet the novel never feels herky-jerky or slipshod, even in the occasional stream-of-consciousness ruminations Brammer probably learned from Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End.

The set-piece passages of atmospheric description, most often saved from turning florid by their stray notes of rueful amusement, must still be unsurpassed as an evocation of both Austin and the “most barbarously large and final” Texas landscapes that engulf it. They’re counterpointed by some of the most entertaining dialogues—and, in Fenstemaker’s case, monologues—in any twentieth-century novel. No wonder lots of people, including Brammer, took a movie sale for granted.

It didn’t happen. The book’s warm critical reception and almost magical effect on Texas’s literati didn’t translate to bestsellerdom, and Brammer spent the remaining seventeen years of his life alternately trying to live up to being “Billy Lee Brammer” and advertising his indifference to the chore. He tried to write a Gay Place sequel, set in Washington and unpromisingly titled Fustian Days. But after its apparently splendid opening pages, the book deteriorated into self-aggrandizing, speed-freak gibberish, at least in the wince-worthy samples Daugherty quotes.

Brammer took on journalistic jobs—going to Atlanta to cover civil rights for Time, for instance—but rarely produced much copy before drifting away. Once Johnson became president, publishers offered him hefty advances for an LBJ biography, but he never delivered. Later on, admirers wangled him gigs as a journalism professor at a couple of second-string universities, which he initially took to with zest before reverting to form as an erratic and plainly bored no-show. He did play a key role in the formative days of Texas Monthly, but his contributions petered out there too.

Nonetheless, what his daughter Sidney called his “hipness about things,” which dated back to his undergrad days at North Texas State Teachers College, all but guaranteed that Brammer would find himself at the forefront of Austin’s scene-making gurus as the 1960s counterculture exploded. He seems to have known and partied with everyone, from a not-yet-famous Janis Joplin to ultra-famous Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith. Part of what Daugherty calls “the Billy Lee Myth” is that he introduced Austin to LSD after a West Coast jaunt to meet Ken Kesey.

Up to the end of his days, his drug intake remained as phenomenal as it was unrepentant. One acquaintance described him as “charming when high (never a better conversationalist), almost lifeless when not.” When he died, he was working as a dishwasher and sous-chef at Austin’s Driskill Hotel—a place as impregnated by Lyndon Johnson’s ghost as any in Texas, incidentally.

Daugherty is too brainy and imaginative a writer to settle for decline-and-fall pathos, let alone try for a tragic note that would be as sentimentally false here as it would have been in The Gay Place itself. You come away thinking that Brammer didn’t betray his talent so much as find other, more transitory outlets for it once The Great American Novel stopped being where the action was. Instead, Brammer wanted Billy Lee Brammer’s presence to define where and what the action was, from drugs and rock ’n’ roll to reconfigured social boundaries. He succeeded at that, too, at least if you buy one Texas Observer editor’s provocative claim that Brammer was as important in the coalescence of some elements of the 1960s counterculture “as [Allen] Ginsberg was to the Beats.”

As a result, once The Gay Place is safely in the reader’s rearview mirror, Daugherty’s scope expands instead of contracts. He’s the sort of biographer who leaps at chances to amplify an era’s social, cultural, and political history by turning his protagonists into a combination of Sinbad and Zelig, and Brammer is far better suited to the role than this writer’s previous subject, Joan Didion. Didion was aloof from the ’60s in as many ways as she was present for them, which left Daugherty stuck contriving pretexts to ramble on about totemic events, like the 1968 Democratic convention, that he couldn’t even place her at.

On top of being pals with Janis Joplin et al., and possibly introducing Austin to psychedelia, Brammer really was in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Like a number of his journalist cronies, he almost certainly did know Jack Ruby. No matter that there’s no substantiation for his claims—more of “the Billy Lee Myth,” as Daugherty says, reserving judgment—that he not only rode in John F. Kennedy’s press motorcade but was on hand at Dallas police headquarters when Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald two days later. The assassination serves as Leaving the Gay Place’s linchpin event, rating a chapter of its own. Unlike some of the Didion bio’s divagations, its prominence here makes perfect sense.

Among other things, Kennedy’s murder was what elevated Brammer’s former boss to the presidency. Daugherty’s subtitle makes it clear that Lyndon Johnson’s importance to his book’s larger schema doesn’t end when The Gay Place is published. The book infuriated LBJ, who most likely never read it, and their relationship ended. But not their connection. Like his fictional counterpart in Brammer’s novel, Johnson goes right on looming even when he’s offstage.

That’s why Leaving the Gay Place is a good book about Billy Lee Brammer and a great book about the ’60s. Daugherty’s most artful achievement is the poetry and resonance he finds in Johnson striving with might and main to make his Great Society real, only for Vietnam to do him in, at the same time that Johnson’s onetime factotum, at the cost of dissipating his literary gifts, is coming to epitomize a different America entirely—one that, in a sense, did Brammer in, too. Although both men undoubtedly went to their graves without realizing it, Prospero had hired Caliban.

A longtime writer on pop culture and politics, Tom Carson is the author of the novels Gilligan’s Wake (Picador, 2003) and Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock, 2011).