THE GAY PLACE
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the greatest American political novel ever written, The Gay Place, by William Brammer. The book is divided into three novellas, The Flea Circus, Room Enough to Caper, and Country Pleasures. They tell the story of Democratic politics in Texas in the 1950s, circling around the majestic figure of Governor Arthur Fenstemaker, based on Lyndon Johnson, for whom Brammer (known as "Billie Lee") wrote speeches, before founding the liberal paper the Texas Monthly and tragically dying of an overdose in 1979. The Gay Place was Brammer's only novel.
It remains in print because it felicitously describes the birth of populist liberalism in racist America through the manipulations of Governor Fenstemaker of the idealists and hangers-on around him. Recognizable characters include Sweet Mama Fenstemaker, based on Lady Bird Johnson, and Hoot Gibson Fenstemaker, based on LBJ's brother, Sam Houston Johnson. The Flea Circus takes place at a wild booze-driven party, in which aides to the governor, male and female, try to make each other with mixed success, while Fenstemaker lines them up in the Texas Legislature to ram through anti-segregation legislation that 90 percent of the state of Texas doesn't cotton to.
In Room Enough to Caper, Fenstemaker appoints to the United States Senate a young idealist, scarred by the Korean War which took the life of his college roommate, a talented artist. The fresh Senator, guilty about his lost friend, his marriage falling apart, only wishes to spend time with his two delightful young daughters, but Fenstemaker forces him to speak extemporaneously at a drunken breakfast for oil barons, championing freedom and liberalism and announcing for election to the Senate seat he doesn't even want.
Country Pleasures finds Fenstemaker and his speechwriter (based on Brammer) driving to a movie set in Mexico to visit the speechwriter's estranged wife, a blonde bombshell movie star named Vicki McGown. Brammer artfully delineates the contrast in power between the aging macho politician and the young gusher of sexual fantasy.
The undercurrent of the novel, Fenstemaker's realization of the limitations of even his own protean political skills, culminates in their visit to Dead Man Jackson, a bootlegger, killed by the Feds, who never really died and lives in a shack on Fenstemaker's ranch decorated by his own tombstone. All the while, through philosophical flirtations and plenty of whiskey, a mob is descending on Austin to turn back the tide of integration and a better world.
How Fenstemaker responds brings The Gay Place to a startling resolution, echoing Nathaniel West's Day of the Locusts and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, books of which The Gay Place is an equal. Brammer's prose is as dry as tumbleweed and as evocative as those tiny purple wild flowers that Lady Bird Johnson used to beautify the Texas highways. It evokes an America of dollar-a-gallon gasoline, sensuous desire that didn't need porn for arousal, and the idealists who thought up the Great Society and the various liberation movements to come.
The Gay Place, if revisited, will warm you up, however mournfully, on the coldest day.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).