THERE ARE WRITERS who throw their whole universe into one marvelous book, then fall mute, despair, and die. Malcolm Lowry was one; Billy Lee Brammer, who died last February, was another. The two men seem to have had much in common. Both died at 48, and, it seems, of much the same cause -- despair and drug abuse following the success of a huge novel.
Lowry's masterpiece, Under the Volcano , has been recognized as a major work of world literature. Now Brammer's novel, The Gay Place , long out of print, has been reissued by Texas Monthly Press. The new edition includes jacket quotes from earlier reviews, which hail the book as "one of the few great American political novels," "an American classic," and "the best book ever written on Lyndon Johnson. The Gay Place (its title, incidentally, was not a sexual allusion) is certainly these, and it should never be out of print again. But, like Under the Volcano , Brammer's book has a special quality that almost transends 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.
The two books share one more key similarity: Both writers, as if fighting off the inertia and panic that would later destroy them, use their fiction to address the mystery of human motivation -- the sometimes insoluble riddle of why we should get up in the morning, tie our shoes, and spend our days doing something besides sleeping, dreaming, or drinking. Lowry, in the end, could find no answer that moved him. But Brammer's answer is embodied by his creation of Governor Arthur Fenstemaker, who dominates the triptych of novellas that make up this sprawling story of Texas politics in the late '50s.
Fenstemaker was closely modeled on Lyndon B. Johnson, for whom Brammer had worked as a Senate aide in the mid-'50s. In the novel, Brammer transforms his former boss and mentor 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 whisopering of the olive leaves, people can be with whom they liek 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: "It was the first shifting about of intellectual furniture that set them free; the trouble was once they began using more of the head, abandoning the computer-machine data that had been fed to them since childhood, they had to keep thinking. And there was no telling where that would lead them."
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 supernatual powers and insight; he is by turns the Prophet Isaiah, a "con-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 legisator named Boy 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.
In his introduction to this edition, Al Reinert reports that LBJ did not like The Gay Place , and he hurt Brammer badly by letting him know. If so, Johnson was being, not for the last time, an ungrateful clod. For though The Gay Place brilliantly lampoons his 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: "He himself, old Fenstemaker, was incorruptible. Fenstemaker hadn't a selling price; he sold things... people... but never himself. There was a point in Fenstemaker's code beyond which existed neither profit nor pleasure. He'd developed his own set of values; there seemed no one like him, anywhere, for weighing ends against means."
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 .