On the cover of the University of Texas Press edition of Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 novel The Gay Place is a blurb by David Halberstam:
There are two classic American political novels. One is All the King’s Men…..the other is The Gay Place, a stunning, original, intensely human novel inspired by Lyndon Johnson.
That’s high praise, especially coming from the author of The Best and the Brightest and nearly two dozen other widely respected books.
I can’t agree.
“I know a gay place”
This book is comprised of three inter-connected novellas, each with its own central character — Texas State Sen. Roy Sherwood in The Flea Circus; Neal Christiansen, the appointed Junior U.S. Senator from Texas, in Room Enough to Caper; and Jay McGowan, the top aide to Texas Gov. Arthur Fenstemaker and estranged husband of Hollywood sex-bomb Vicki McGowan in Country Pleasures.
Fenstemaker is the character “inspired by Lyndon Johnson.” Vicki McGowan is modeled on Marilyn Monroe.
The title comes from an F. Scott Fitzgerald poem which includes the lines: “I heard Helena/In a haunted doze/Say: ‘I know a gay place/Nobody knows.’ ”
Given Halberstam’s strong endorsement of The Gay Place, I expected something solid and important and essential. Instead, I found three over-heated stories about characters floundering in a sea of existential angst.
It all seemed so very dated.
Much bigger game
The Gay Place clearly isn’t the sort of political story that is immersed in the electoral-legislative process and that examines the moral and personal quandaries of politicians trying to make or influence policy decisions while striving to stay afloat as the current of events barrels them along. Examples are Allen Drury’s 1959 novel Advise and Consent and Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel The Last Hurrah.
Hardly anything political, such as legislative horse-trading, takes place on the pages of The Gay Place, and most of what does occurs either off-stage (e.g., a segregationist march on the state Capitol) or in the space of a quick few paragraphs (e.g., the passage of a bill through the state senate under Sherwood’s direction).
The Flea Circus does involve the solicitation and payment of bribes. Room Enough to Caper focuses Christiansen’s dithering over whether to run for election to his appointive U.S. Senate seat. Country Pleasures is, on some level, at least, about the intersection of two very similar pursuits — the making of movies and the creation and maintenance of a political career.
Yet, these political situations are simply settings for Brammer. He has much bigger game to bring down — the human condition.
The human search
In the aftermath of World War II, Brammer, a member of a second generation to lose its innocence in war, wants to examine what men — he’s only really interested in men — can do in a world without recognizable values.
Many other writers took up this theme during the two decades after the war. Brammer’s work is better than some, but doesn’t hold a candle to the quality literature that was produced, such as Norman Mailer’s 1948 book The Naked and the Dead.
Brammer isn’t really writing about politics as an endeavor. He’s writing about politics as an aspect of the human search for dominance, status and meaning.
Unfortunately, in that arena, he comes up against Shakespeare who wrote better than anyone else about power and ambition in Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, Henry V and Romeo and Juliet.
Trembling and weeping
OK. Nobody else is in Shakespeare’s class.
Yet, it’s hard to argue that Brammer is a gifted writer. His novellas are built around a host of generally aimless characters. The men are all described in some way as handsome and the women as beautiful and hot.
Actually, pretty much everyone in these stories is hot — as in fevered, as in ready for sex with pretty much anyone else.
That sexual passion, though, isn’t paralleled by political passion. Perhaps it’s supposed to be seen as a substitute.
Sherwood, Christiansen and Jay McGowan are lost souls, and, except for Fenstemaker, so are all the minor characters. One of the more interesting people in the book, a guy with red hair and a big red beard and a seeming joy for life, goes home one night and hangs himself.
At least 18 times in the novel, Brammer describes a character as lost or feeling lost. Twenty times, he writes about a character’s innocence in the face of the world’s complexities. And, of course, sometimes the loss involves a loss of innocence.
Ten times in the three novellas, a character trembles in fear or uncertainty. And then there’s the crying. About once every 20 pages or so, a character weeps or cries or sobs.
Weep and whine
Consider these sentences at the end of chapter 15 in Room Enough to Caper concerning Andrea Christiansen, the senator’s wife:
She lay in her upstairs bed with the light coming in through the windows and the sweet party dress stuck against her feverish skin. She was overtaken by an irresistible weeping, but there was no one in the big house who could hear.
Compare that with the end of chapter 16, six pages later, in which the Senator is driving home after sex with an employee:
He thought about his two little girls and how he would have to start in immediately upon his arrival to the house to hide all their beautifully colored [Easter] eggs. For no reason — and only for a few seconds, really — he began to cry.
It’s not that Brammer is a lazy writer. He has so many characters trembling and feeling lost and has Andrea and Neil both sobbing because that’s the life he wants to show. Existence for his characters — and apparently for Brammer — isn’t something to wrestle with.
In the face of the chaos of life and the loss of traditional values, his characters, again with the exception of the governor, don’t fight the current to make some headway somehow.
They weep and they whine and they sink under the waves.
It’s hard to picture Dick Daley or Mike Madigan doing that.
Or Lyndon Johnson.
Patrick T. Reardon