William Brammer Joe Klein - Essay

Joe Klein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 compared with everyone from Dickens to James Joyce in a series of introductions, forwards and mad gushings prior to the text itself), it still reads pretty well after 20 years, quite an achievement for a political novel….

[Governor Arthur "Goddamn"] Fenstemaker dominates the book without ever becoming the central figure. The effect is something like a clothing store mirror—Fenstemaker is ever-present and all-knowing, wheeling and dealing and cajoling, but always peripheral. He appears briefly, obliquely, takes our breath away and is gone. We never find out what he's really thinking.

Fenstemaker is more a force of nature than a human being, which, I gather, is pretty much what Lyndon Johnson was like….

By comparison, the heroes of The Gay Place are distressingly human. They are the first post-war, post-McCarthy generation of Texas liberals….

Their aimlessness is the perfect foil for the mad drive of Arthur Fenstemaker. The young liberals are fascinated by the governor, drawn to him, nonplussed and tickled by him. Somehow he's managed to play the game both more and less seriously than they. They sense he is larger, more complete than they'll ever be. His young aide, Jay McGown, wonders why he can't be a man like Fenstemaker. But Fenstemaker isn't a man; he's an illusion. Brammer's unwitting triumph was to discover the perfect structure for communicating the exasperating unreality of the master politician. (p. 65)

Joe Klein, "Politicians: Are They Not Men?" in Mother Jones, Vol. IV, No. V, June, 1979, pp. 65-6.∗