William Brammer

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James Fallows

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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 nobility or crassness of their thoughts. "The Gay Place" is fundamentally a political book, but it is first a superbly controlled work of fiction, its characters vivid, its style elegant and knowing, its political and human insights growing naturally from its characters rather than being strapped crudely upon them. (p. 7)

The figure that holds the book together is Fenstemaker—always prodding the others to act, guiding their lives in unseen ways, running on mysterious supplies of enthusiasm and concern that seem denied to all the rest. The name … means "window-maker" in the German still spoken in the Texas Hill Country—conjurer, illusionist, worker of wonders. Fenstemaker is all these things in the book, and Brammer's description of his style is the richest evocation of Lyndon Johnson anywhere in print. (p. 30)

Fenstemaker looms especially large because of the era in which he operates. "The Gay Place" etches the mood of the late 1950's as clearly as "Gatsby" does the Jazz Age; nearly all the characters in the book wonder where they should commit themselves, what is happening to them, why it matters at all. Fenstemaker is the one source of energy in this attenuated crowd, the one firm anchor of purpose amid self-doubt.

This may account for what, in retrospect, seems the novel's only flaw. Brammer no more judges Fenstemaker—or Johnson—than a child could judge his father, marveling instead at his energy and purpose, considering them as their own justifications, regardless of their ends. In a later, more passionate era, Johnson's certainty would not win such automatic admiration. Brammer was going to write about that, too, and would have done it well, but his biography of Johnson, commissioned 15 years ago, was left by the wayside, like so much else.

Brammer's death—really, his inability to write anything that came up to his standards after "The Gay Place"—was a loss to readers, a sorrow to his friends, a tragedy for himself. But no man can be considered tragic who has left a work like this. (pp. 30-1)

James Fallows, "Success Story," in The New York Times Book Review, January 14, 1979, pp. 7, 30-1.

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