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Illustration for article titled Deep In The Heart Of Texas

If you don't know from Billy Lee Brammer and his brilliant novel about Dallas politics, The Gay Place, welp, here's your chance. Dig in to these two Texas Monthly features:

"Billy Lee" by Al Reinert (February, 1979):

Three winters ago it snowed in Dallas for the first time in easy recall, and my luck to be there. As a result, I paid my only visit to the old Brammer place in Oak Cliff, a backwater suburb on the wrong shore of the Trinity River. Billy Lee had to run down to Austin to report to his probation officer, and so for a few days I was alone in that quiet house where he had grown up. It had been in Billy's hands about three months and he had sacked it pretty thoroughly by then, hauling out everything easily movable and remotely salable. What remained was either too heavy or unlikely to sell, while strewn all around were rumpled heaps of dirty clothes, boxes of paperback books and pots and pans, random clutter and refuse. Scattered here and there were the remnants of Billy's staple diet—Sara Lee pie tins, Twinkies wrappers, cans of cake frosting with moldy spoons protruding, Pepsi bottles—and occasionally I came upon a nasty-looking discarded hypodermic of the kind sold over the counter to insulin users.

Oak Cliff had been a nicely trim and upright middle-class Dallas suburb when Billy Lee Brammer arrived in it, somewhat prematurely, in 1929, a menopause baby born twenty years after his brother and sister, a rather small Taurus. He was a small man in the physical sense, short at any rate, and could tell droll stories about how it felt "to come up short in Texas," but he didn't carry the deep small fears of many people born late in their parents' lives, raised alone, indulged. He was not weak-willed like a petted adolescent grown up insecure. I think Billy Lee was perhaps the most bullheaded person I've ever known, although certainly he applied his stubbornness to his weaknesses, pressed it to ends that seemed to the rest of us alarming and deplorable—self-destructive, many called it.

It was always self-directed, though, very purposeful in his own mind, maybe even necessary—like strip-mining a rich vein of rare insight. Billy had once by unanimous consent been the finest writer in Texas; indeed his novel, The Gay Place , is often considered the one great modern Texas novel, although in truth it is less and more than that: less because there are now other claimants to the regional title, and yet more because it is much more than an Texas novel.


And, "Return to the Gay Place" by Jan Reid (March, 2001):

"The country is most barbarously large and final." It is one of those rare first lines that readers remember all their lives. Published forty years ago, a novel called The Gay Place captured a period in Texas that today may seem as archaic as the book's title, but its power bridges the years and generations gone by. The novel built for its author, Billy Lee Brammer—also known as Bill or Billie Lee or William—a legend of tantalizing and unfulfilled promise. How could he write a book so ambitious when he was only 31, and then never publish another? The most famous opening in Texas literature begins with a towering overview of the Balcones Escarpment as it divides the nation's cotton-farming South from the ranch-land West. But Billy Lee was after neither of those rich literary traditions. With nary a sharecropper or a horseman, The Gay Place was Texas' first successful urban novel. It does not, however, explore gay and lesbian sexuality (though today it often winds up misplaced in that section of bookstores.) For centuries "gay" has suggested joy, brilliance, and mirth; the author found his gaiety in the boozy, incestuous lives of politicians, journalists, and camp followers in Austin in the fifties. The opening passage narrows on a pickup full of farmworkers rattling toward a rendezvous with a state legislator named Roy Sherwood who is sleeping off a drunk in his car:

It is a pleasant city, clean and quiet, with wide rambling walks and elaborate public gardens and elegant old homes faintly ruined in the shadow of arching poplars. Occasionally through the trees, and always from a point of higher ground, one can see the college tower and the Capitol building. On brilliant mornings the white sandstone of the tower and the Capitol's granite dome are joined for an instant, all pink and cream, catching the first light.

If that sounds like a Texas take on F. Scott Fitzgerald, the resemblance was desired. Billy Lee lifted his title from a line in a wistful Fitzgerald poem ("I know a gay place / Nobody knows") and used it as an epitaph for the Austin he had known, and for love itself. Comprising three novellas, called "The Flea Circus," "Room Enough to Caper," and "Country Pleasures," The Gay Place has two connective sinews: the theme of marital alienation and infidelity and an outrageous Texas governor called Arthur "Goddam" Fenstemaker. The author knew his material well. Billy Lee would be twice married and divorced in his short life—he died of a drug overdose in 1978, when he was 48—and to the end he remained a fervent womanizer. But his book is best known for what is still regarded as one of the most vivid and penetrating portraits of Lyndon B. Johnson. Like most fictional characters, The Gay Place 's Arthur Fenstemaker was a montage of persons real and imagined, but Billy Lee worked for LBJ for several years when Johnson was in the U.S. Senate; from the hokey yet endearing nickname of the governor's wife, Sweet Mama, to his hapless fetchit of a brother, Hoot Gibson, there is no doubt that Bill took much of his material from Johnson.

Michael Janeway, a former executive editor of the Atlantic Monthly who now directs a program for journalists at Columbia University, was a summer intern on LBJ's staff when Billy Lee became his friend. "He would write me about various civil rights maneuvers that Johnson carried on under the table, pushing back the old Southern power structure," Janeway says. "That kind of story would come up in every after-hours conversation; there was a lot of hilarity in that office. And Billy Lee got to go home to the ranch with him. That was where Johnson was the most outrageous—and irresistible."

And for yet more on Brammer, check out Steven L. Davis' fantastic book, Texas Literary Outlaws.


[Photo via: Scholz Garten History]

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