William Brammer Essay - Critical Essays

Brammer, William


William Brammer 1930?–1978

(Also wrote under the name Billy Lee Brammer) American novelist.

Brammer's literary output consists of three short novels published collectively under the title The Gay Place (1961). Set in a fictional southwestern state which critics identify as Texas, the three stories—The Flea Circus, Room Enough to Caper, and Country Pleasures—are loosely based on Brammer's experiences as a senatorial aide to Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1950s. Although each short novel centers on the career of a different young politician, connecting all three works is the character Governor Arthur Fenstemaker. Fenstemaker, who is said to be modeled after Johnson, is a heroic figure who stands in contrast to the self-doubting young politicians.

Although The Gay Place was favorably received when first published, it did not receive the widespread recognition that most critics expected. Reissued posthumously in 1978, the work elicited renewed critical appraisal. Critics generally agree that the primary strengths of The Gay Place are Brammer's witty and elegant prose style, his ability to recreate the dynamics and complexities of political campaigns, and his realistic depiction of the manners and mores of an elite stratum of society during a distinctive era of American history. Although some critics view Brammer's portrayal of Fenstemaker as overly sympathetic, others contend that his well-developed characters and skillful narration make The Gay Place a work of exceptional merit among political novels.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80 [obituary].)

Virginia Kirkus' Service

[The Gay Place] introduces a newcomer of considerable stature. But frankly we do not see [Brammer] as a major literary figure or a great discovery. The Gay Place depends too much on stock sex situations, indiscriminate changing of partners, free for alls on a superficial charge of excess liquor and license. And yet it will undoubtedly be reviewed as another inside picture of American politics—and an unsavory one on all counts. Brammer has a gift for dialogue, a sharp wit, a keen sense of posing irreconcilables. But as a story-teller he has much to learn. The Gay Place is actually three books: The Flea Circus, Room Enough to Caper and Country Pleasures. The setting throughout is presumably Texas—big, brash, and rich. The personable governor, Arthur Fenstemaker, is a constant in all three stories, and with overlapping minor characters links the three parts into a major portrait of the American political arena. And an arena it is, with victims thrown to the beasts, with shenanigans and extravaganzas arranged for the entertainment of the mob, with questionable manipulations behind the scenes, deals, wire pulling, cheap stunts…. Somehow the parts never jell, either on their own or as panels in an overall scene. And somehow one doesn't much care.

A review of "The Gay Place," in Virginia Kirkus' Service, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, January 1, 1961, p. 30.

Caroline Tunstall

"The Gay Place" is made up of three short novels unified by setting and theme. They present the political scene in a Southwestern state that is a reasonable facsimile of Texas; one is not surprised to learn that William Brammer was for some time on the staff of Lyndon Johnson. The three protagonists of these tales are very similar, all members of the not-so-young generation, veterans of World War II, liberal politicians sardonically aware that their liberalism has been compromised by their politics. They use the current intellectual catchwords only half mockingly, distrust themselves more than their foes, and conduct their affairs—of all sorts—to the unceasing sound of record player, jukebox or radio. They owe their drinking to Hemingway, their glitter to Fitzgerald and their sweetness to Salinger. This is not for a moment to deny that they represent very actual types. And for all their likeness, they are sharply differentiated.

"The Flea Circus," first and fullest of the three stories, covers a few days in the life of Roy Sherwood.

"Room Enough to Caper" presents the … case of Neil Christiansen…. [And] the final story, "Country Pleasures," [features] Jay McGown….

The three stories are in fact three anecdotes in the life of the same man, the governor, Arthur Fenstemaker…. He is a devoted husband and brother, a ruthless schemer, a charming rake. He is also the liberal leader who has inspired a generation of younger men. Altogether a successful creation, Fenstemaker is, one suspects, very dear to his author. But after creating his hero, his man of action, Brammer refuses to call him to account. The question of responsibility hangs over the book, today's familiar mushroom cloud in an empty sky.

Caroline Tunstall, "Award-Winning First Novel," in Lively Arts and Book Review, March 12, 1961, p. 34.

Wirt Williams

William Brammer has an authentic, even lyrical, writing talent. He has as intimate a knowledge of operational politics as any serious American novelist…. And he is only 30 years old. Situated as he is at the confluence of natural gifts, experience and youth, it would seem inescapable that his political novel would be truly impressive. Instead, it turns out to be no more than interesting and promising—though it will surely rank strongly among the year's first novels…. The disappointment comes from a weak grasp of fictional form. In the three installments which make up the book (each, actually, is a short novel in itself), the author shows a sense of the architecture of the novel in only one, the last….

The pin that holds them together is a wise, witty, vulgar, almost saintly superman named Arthur Fenstemaker, the Governor. All through the first novel, "The Flea Circus," float legislators and editors, beautiful women and bemused liberals, as though in some unfocused, dimly remembered dream. The effect is striking, though the structure is slender….

In "Room Enough to Caper," the good, wily Governor tricks his young appointee to the Senate into seeking a full term by election. The last installment, "Country Pleasures" is the least ambitious and yet perhaps the most successful of the three. The beautiful, blonde ex-wife of the Governor's assistant, Jay McGown, has cheese-caked her way to film stardom. She is thrown with her former husband when she tries to get him to return to her. As Jay is driven to a crisis in his personal life, the Governor is driven to one in his political career by Federal integration rulings.

Mr. Brammer's great gift is his ability to communicate the poignancy of the passing moment, the sweet sadness of the flight of love and time. When he learns to project vision as well as surfaces, he will be a writer of real consequence.

Wirt Williams, "A Political Triptych," in The New York Times Book Review, March 12, 1961, p. 33.

James Fallows

Eighteen years ago, when he was 31, Billy Lee Brammer published the novel he had written during long late-night stands on Lyndon B. Johnson's Senate staff. The book was called "The Gay Place"—not a loaded title then—and, except for riches, it brought Brammer all the sweet glories of early literary success…. [Respectful] reviewers proclaimed him the heir to F. Scott Fitzgerald; all the prospects were bright.

One year ago, at the age of 48, Billy Lee Brammer lay dead in Texas, technically the victim of drug abuse, but really undone by the years of frustration that had followed his great success….

[The new edition of "The Gay Place"] appears as a kind of memorial edition—a memorial one is almost afraid to read, for fear that the novel will not be as good as memory has made it, or as kind wishes want it to be.

In fact, "The Gay Place" is even stronger than it seemed at first. With its era (the late 1950's) passed, its author dead, its central figure (Lyndon Johnson) gone from the stage, it still stands as an independent, lasting work of art that may now receive the fame and following it has deserved all along.

To give the book its most obvious due—that it is one of the best political novels—is almost to undersell its merits, because a "political" novel has come to mean one that makes up for the thinness of its characters with the grandness of their job titles and the implausible...

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Garrett Epps

[Billy Lee Brammer's The Gay Place] has a special quality that almost transcends questions of literary merit—a richness, a completeness in rendering an entire small world, a satisfying structure of myth and symbol. It is, quite simply, a magical book. (p. 1)

In the novel, Brammer transforms his former boss and mentor [Lyndon B. Johnson] into a moderate governor of decent instincts who is also a symbol of courage and a crazed kind of integrity in a landscape of entropic weariness.

The book's other characters are bewildered, ineffectual provincial liberals, bright young people pursuing an impossible ideal of ease and grace set forth in an epigraph from Ford Madox Ford: "Is there then any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and coolness?"

The vision of an earthly paradise, Brammer seems to be saying, is an illusion; it has led his cast of "hipster pols" into lives of sexual and alcoholic abandon, the paralysis of thinking without acting…. (pp. 1, 4)

Fenstemaker does not rely on the dubious guide of the intellect, but on instinct and larger-than-life sense of purpose, as he sets about his work of "power an' change an' improvement." Like Willie Stark in All the King's Men, Fenstemaker possesses supernatural powers and insight; he is by turns the...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Joe Klein

Political novels usually aren't very good. Most are overstuffed with dashing Kennedyesque characters who go around pouring bourbon over ice, smoking cigarette after cigarette after slim, elegant cigar and screwing their unvaryingly voluptuous secretaries…. Worse, most political novels make the tragic mistake of treating politicians as if they were human beings with feelings, emotions and sometimes even principles. This—as any reasonable American realizes in 1979—is giving them far more credit than they deserve….

Billy Lee Brammer's The Gay Place is, if you can believe it, a rather hopeful portrait of Lyndon Johnson…. While it isn't exactly the classic its fans suppose (Brammer is...

(The entire section is 349 words.)