William Brammer

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Garrett Epps

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[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 Prophet Isaiah, a "corn-pone Buddha," and Jehovah himself, a heavenly father figure who even arranges the crucifixion and resurrection—over an Easter weekend in Austin—of his own political son, the symbolically named Senator Neil Christiansen.

Indeed, Fenstemaker manages to save two of the young wastrels around him—Christiansen and a legislator named Roy Sherwood. He fills them with his own sense of motivation and sends them forth "to make a change and build a city and save the goddam world from collapse." But in the end, he is overcome by an American mythic figure even more powerful than he, the Hollywood sex goddess. Maddened by lust, he signs the state over to a Mexican tavern owner and dies in a heart-stopping sexual excess….

[Though] The Gay Place brilliantly lampoons [Lyndon Johnson's] mannerisms and speech and caricatures his sexual appetites, it remains unswervingly faithful to a vision of the best in Lyndon Johnson, to the Johnson of the Voting Rights Act and the Great Society….

Arthur Fenstemaker falls into sexual corruption, but when the real Johnson fell it was into darkness more desperate than that—paranoia, war, the betrayal of many bright dreams for himself and his country. A work of art may stand as partial redemption of its maker's tortured life; The Gay Place certainly does. But it may also constitute one small act of restitution by its model. LBJ left us so much that is evil, it seems fitting that he should have helped inspire something as fine as The Gay Place. (p. 4)

Garrett Epps, "Deep in the Heart of Texas," in Book World—The Washington Post, February 4, 1979, pp. 1, 4.

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