How Karen Olsson Discovered The Gay Place

A month or so ago, I read an entertaining essay by Chris Lehmann in which he suggested that “the one truly great modern American political novel” wasn’t All the King’s Men but The Gay Place. I filed the title away for future reference…and dang if not a few days later, the NYTBR was devoting the first two paragraphs of its review of Karen Olsson’s Waterloo to The Gay Place and its author, Billy Lee Brammer. Well, I thought, this is the sort of thing that leads to Beatrice guest essays…

olsson.jpgI’d never heard of Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 trilogy The Gay Place before I moved to Austin, but I came across it soon enough. A friend from college, turned graduate student at the University of Texas, was serving as a teaching assistant in a Southwestern U.S. Lit class that had Brammer’s book on the syllabus. When I found it on his shelf, he explained that the book was not about gay people, as outsiders commonly assume, but about affairs both political and (hetero)sexual, in a 1950s state capital closely based on Austin. (The title comes from an F. Scott Fitzgerald verse: “I heard Helena/ In a haunted doze/ Say: “I know a gay place/ Nobody knows.”) To me that sounded quaint and provincial; I probably made a face. No no, he told me, it was actually pretty good.

I can no longer really remember my first reaction to The Gay Place, because I’ve reread it several times since then, but I do know that I loved it. It consists of three short novels, totaling over five hundred pages, linked by setting and by the character of Governor Arthur “Goddamn” Fenstemaker, an LBJ/Huey Long-style good old boy who strides in and out of the narrative, pulling at his nose and drinking and cursing and pushing the plot along. Brammer greatly admired Fitzgerald, and his prose has a lyrical bent, but he also admired Lyndon Johnson, and the book’s more fanciful turns of phrase are tempered with Fenstemaker’s cursing. Likewise, the mooning passive quality of some of his characters plays against Fenstemaker’s machinations. For me (transplant that I am) that mix of romanticism and salt-of-the-earthiness captures something essential about the character of Texas itself—which was the subject of Brammer’s memorable first lines: “The country is barbarously large and final. It is too much country—boondock country—alternately drab and dazzling, spectral and remote. It is so wrongfully muddled and various that it is difficult to conceive of it as all of a piece.”

Larry McMurtry once called The Gay Place a fine short novel buried in an overly long narrative, but in Austin, among a certain cross-section of the politically-minded and the bookish, praise for it is less equivocal. Before Slacker came along, The Gay Place was the work that defined Austin, and it’s still beloved for its sardonic, sophisticated stories of politicos and journalists making messes of their personal lives, as well as for its time-capsule snapshot of the city. The trilogy has also been burnished by the Brammer legend: After publishing it at 31, to great acclaim, he never finished another book and died in 1978 of a drug overdose. But before all that he worked, in his twenties, as a speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson, and he was able to translate his experience in the political trenches into literary fiction. As Christopher Lehmann wrote in a current issue of Washington Monthly, The Gay Place is one of the few American works of fiction that truly inhabits politics, rather than holding it out at arm’s length and denouncing its shortcomings.

Ten years after I first read The Gay Place, I’ve published a novel of my own about Austin, which reviewers, not surprisingly, have compared to Brammer’s. Though state politics is less central in my novel than in his trilogy, I tried to emulate Brammer’s trick for writing fiction about politics without putting all his readers to sleep—by creating decent characters, for starters, but also by folding in the information and intrigue subtly, and often as part of scenes staged outside the statehouse (as opposed to, say, a scene of a committee hearing). I’m sure I was influenced by The Gay Place in other ways, too, though it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly how. Suffice it to say that on the day The New York Times began a review of my book with a glowing reference to Brammer, I was delighted to see that his Amazon rating soared. And last time I checked at my local bookstore, where I had gone to buy a copy for a friend, it was sold out.

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28 November 2005 | guest authors |