Three interlocking stories about a fictional Texas governor.
Series: Texas ClassicsSales restrictions: Not for sale in the British Commonwealth except Canada
Set in Texas, The Gay Place consists of three interlocking novels, each with a different protagonist—a member of the state legislature, the state's junior senator, and the governor's press secretary. The governor himself, Arthur Fenstemaker, a master politician, infinitely canny and seductive, remains the dominant figure throughout.
Billy Lee Brammer—who served on Lyndon Johnson's staff—gives us here "the excitement of a political carnival: the sideshows, the freaks, and the ghoulish comedy atmosphere" (Saturday Review).
Originally published in 1961, The Gay Place is at once a cult classic and a major American novel.
- The Flea Circus
- Room Enough to Caper
- Country Pleasures
Originally published in 1961, The Gay Place is at once a cult classic and a major American novel.
For over three decades now, Billy Lee Brammer's The Gay Place has carried the aura of a legend. The legend is partly true. Brammer was a supremely talented writer who wrote one very good novel but was never able to write another. Frustration and anxiety dogged his subsequent efforts, and his life ended prematurely at age forty-eight from a drug overdose. According to this version of the legend, he belongs in the company of such promising one-book authors as Thomas Heggen (Mister Roberts) and Ross Lockridge (Raintree County), novelists whose early triumphs were never duplicated and whose lives came to ruin from, among other causes, the pressures attendant upon their initial successes. Neither Heggen nor Lockridge ever wrote that crucial second book, and both eventually committed suicide.
Like Heggen and Lockridge, Brammer certainly felt a sense of anxiety occasioned by the lofty praise of his first novel. It garnered glowing remarks from the kind of names that matter. Gore Vidal, for example, proclaimed it "an American classic," and David Halberstam ranked it alongside All the King's Men and predicted it would be read "a hundred years from now." Such praise registered strongly upon the young author. When Larry L. King read to Brammer Halberstam's rave review from the New York Times Book Review in 1961, Brammer responded, "Oh, Jesus, now they'll be waiting to pin my ears back if I can't do it again." But The Gay Place was not a commercial success. It went into a second printing—and then onto the remaindered table.
Brammer's decline and death have more to do with the stark and indisputable fact of prolonged drug addiction than with the anxiety of achievement. His second wife, Dorothy Browne, has said: "Tragic? Yeah. But only at the very end. And it certainly didn't have anything to do with Lyndon Johnson. It had to do with addiction." Many of Brammer's friends insist that his life was essentially a happy one. Film director Robert Benton, a longtime friend of Brammer and Nadine Eckhardt, his first wife, says, "I don't think Billy went through the sense of torment that Fitzgerald went through. I never knew him when he was not some kind of extraordinary optimist, or wasn't filled with a kind of hope or generosity toward everyone around him." Jan Reid, journalist and novelist, reports that Brammer never exhibited any signs of "that tortured writer sense about him." Ronnie Dugger, Edwin (Bud) Shrake, Larry L. King, Willie Morris, Gary Cartwright—writers and friends of Brammer's—all remember him with great respect and affection. Recalling Brammer's habit of staying up all night writing, Shrake has observed: "If it was 5 a.m. and you wanted company, you could count on Bill." There is also a sense of loss, of wasted gifts. King has written of the frustration he felt upon hearing of Brammer's death: "And I felt, too, a quick surge of irrational anger. But even as I recognized it as such, a part of me began yelling at my old friend's ghost: Goddammit, Billie Lee, why'd you get yourself so screwed up you only left to the world a fraction of your talent?"
For Brammer was a card-carrying intellectual and a writer's writer. His conversations were an important part of his influence. Willie Morris recalls that "the long talks we had at his house or under the trees at Scholz's were, along with talks with Ronnie [Dugger], the first real conversations I ever had with anyone about the power and beauty of the written word." Journalist Kaye Northcott has suggested that Brammer "was just as important to the Austin underground as Ginsberg was to the beats. They were both mentors, teaching the impatient how to cope with an imperfect world." A "middle-of-the-road anarchist" in Gary Cartwright's phrase, Brammer "was always ahead of the game. Instead of writing, he was cuing the rest of us on what to expect."
Born in 1929 in Dallas, Brammer enjoyed a conventional middle-class upbringing. He played sports at Sunset High, and sometime in early adolescence discovered a lifelong passion for books. He attended college at North Texas State College, which, though no Harvard or Yale, was stimulating enough if you read and yearned for contact with ideas. There Brammer wrote columns for the campus newspaper, adopting a sophisticated, more-superior-than-thou tone regarding such local campus fixtures as fraternity and sorority life, and there he met Nadine Cannon, whom he married in 1950. Following graduation in 1952, he held newspaper jobs in Corpus Christi and then in Austin, where, in 1955, he became associate editor of the sprightly new anomaly in the Texas of that era, a liberal weekly called the Texas Observer. Life in Austin in the mid-fifties, by all reports, was pleasant to the point of rapture. The small capital city of some 80,000 citizens had a legislature full of colorful solons and lobbyists, and it had a university growing in prestige. In such a stimulating atmosphere Brammer began to work on a novel called "The Heavy Honeyed Air," set in Austin. It never came together, though. It consisted of isolated pieces and somehow just didn't work.
In 1955, too, the catalytic event in Brammer's life and work occurred: he joined the staff of Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and moved to Washington. The senator hired Nadine as well; hiring couples was a generous Johnsonian habit not without its benefits to the senator—his aides worked very long hours, and this way it was all in the family. Johnson's vitality energized Brammer, stimulated his imagination, led him to work assiduously on The Novel. Larry L. King remembers those days of intense creativity: "When we were young Capitol Hill flunkies together, Billie Lee wrote The Gay Place on candy bars and hot Jell-O water swigged from a milk bottle; he claimed the strange combination gave him 'energy rushes.' He obviously found stronger fuels later on, though I am convinced that in those distant days (1958-61) Billie Lee was no dopehead."
In 1957 Brammer got a publisher's advance on the basis of "Country Pleasures," a short novel about a governor named Arthur Fenstemaker who visits a movie set in far West Texas, has a fling with a female aide, and dies in bed. The contract was intended to provide the means whereby Brammer would complete a longer novel about the governor. The result, in 1961, was The Gay Place. The title, of course, sounds faintly archaic now, the word "gay" having undergone a permanent sea change within just a few short years of the book's publication. The author's name on the title page is of interest, too. It read "William Brammer," an East Coast emendation of his Christian name, Billy Lee. A letter to Brammer from a Houghton Mifflin editor, Dorothy de Santillane, explained the company's position in detail:
No one, I repeat no one, up here thinks "Billy Lee" is possible. With all respect to your parents who gave it to you with such evident love (it is a very "loving" name) it has not the strength and authority for a novel which commands respect at the top of its voice.
We are going to call it "by B. L. Brammer" and if we are asked we shall answer "Bill L. Brammer." This is official.
The Texas literati have made much of this change. William Broyles, the founding editor of Texas Monthly, for example, has remarked that he was "still Billy Lee, no matter if editors in Boston mistakenly believed that people named Billy Lee didn't write great books." Yet in his signed articles for the Texas Observer he used the name Bill Brammer. The preference for "Billy Lee" seems at times something like inverse snobbery to claim him as even more of a down-home hipster with a good ol' boy name.
The title page bears a curious subtitle: "Being Three Related Novels The Flea Circus, Room Enough to Caper, Country Pleasures." The three novels involve the repetition of characters, settings, and themes. It is interesting that the publisher chose not to call it a trilogy, perhaps because trilogies typically appear in separate volumes (Dos Passos's U.S.A., for example). Shrake has pointed out that if Brammer had published the novels separately, say two years apart, he "would have been a lot better known." That way, he might more easily have had a career. Instead, everything was contained in one volume, making it difficult—indeed, as it turned out, impossible—for him to produce the next volume. There is something to this argument. Brammer's "second act," as Paul Cullum has called it, echoing Fitzgerald's famous remark about there being no second acts in American lives, never happened.
After The Gay Place Brammer worked for Time magazine in 1960. He quit in 1961 to write full time and never held a permanent job again. In 1961 he and Nadine divorced, and in 1963 he married Dorothy Browne. Things looked very promising that year. Columbia Pictures announced plans to make a major film of the novel. Paul Newman would play Roy Sherwood and Jackie Gleason, Arthur Fenstemaker. Eventually the project was abandoned, partly, it is thought, because of the ascension of Johnson to the presidency. That November of 1963 in Dallas, hours after the assassination, Brammer received offers to write magazine articles on the new president. A bit later he got an even better offer, a contract to do the first biography of Johnson. What writer, after all, knew LBJ better than Brammer? But it was not to be. The new president forbade access to Brammer, partly, everyone believes, because the first lady had read the book and was not amused. Johnson himself told Brammer that he had read a few pages and found it too dirty to continue, but there is no evidence that Johnson ever read a novel; he was too busy living one. In any event, the project was dead in the water.
All through the sixties and seventies, friends and admirers expected, hoped, prayed that Brammer would write another novel. And he worked on one for a long time. That, too, became part of his legend. The book was called "Fustian Days," but it never got beyond a mass of pages, revised endlessly, that was never shaped into a coherent whole. Larry McMurtry has claimed that the early sections of "Fustian Days" were the best thing Brammer had written but that the rest failed to sustain such promise.'' Larry L. King reports that he read "perhaps 150 or 200 manuscript pages" of "Fustian Days" in 1964 and that they "bordered on the brilliant."
The "Fustian Days" manuscripts survive today in the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State University [now Texas State University-San Marcos]. There are seven folders of material ranging from a few pages to several hundred. Some sections are fairly clean, others are extensively revised; the sections overlap and repeat each other. But from what remains one can see something of Brammer's unfulfilled intentions. "Fustian Days" consists of three books: "Sonic Goddam Boom," "Secret Muzack" (alternately titled "Eatin' Little Babies"), and "And It Don't Hurt the Meat Much." They deal with the lives of Roy Sherwood and Neil Christiansen, the protagonists of the first and second books of The Gay Place, now living in Washington, D.C., and somewhat lost and directionless without the spirit of Arthur Fenstemaker to breathe life and purpose into them. A couple of passages are enough to suggest the self-conscious artistry that almost paralyzes the fragments. Brammer writes in one section:
We ought now to be getting round to the story part of this story: the real and human document part ... complex, absorbing ... leavened with symbol and the subtlest ennui ... Before we are overrun with the dancing girls I thoughtfully contracted for earlier in the evening in behalf of those among us whose tastes might run to excess.
A page later in this prolonged meditation on style, he writes: "Wild prose, hah? I learned how, writing speeches for southern politicians, whose rhythms are unmatched in all of modern literature."
There were other, far lesser fragments of unrealized efforts. "El End Zone," dated April 27, 1965, is a wild, obscene, gonzo-style interview of an author named Maelstrum (obviously Brammer himself) who at one point lists all the substances fit to smoke, inhale, or eat, beginning with pot and running through Seconal, cocaine, ether, "Elmer's goddam glue," and on and on. There is a one-page fragment titled "The Angst Book" or "Avez-vous Dexamyl?" There are aperçus scrawled on unmarked pages, of which this one is typical: "Absinthe Makes the Hard Grow Fonder."
No one was more aware of his problems as a writer than Brammer himself. He wrote King in 1968: "This is not another of them pleas begging assistance, so you should immediately relax the scrotum; lend some ease to your careworn sac. Which is not to deny the need for help, God wot: wise counsel or some new miracle drug or just maybe a plain unprettified boot in the arse: any old damn gesture is welcome currently." A few sentences later, he summed it all up: "Writing is just so murderously hard for me in recent years—unaccountably so—though my skull feels livelier than ever." The anguished-artist thesis may be the correct explanation; on the other hand, perhaps not. At least one friend, Gary Cartwright, has argued that Brammer in some sense "chose" not to write the next novel, that he preferred "living" to writing and that "everyone who knew the man profited." Perhaps Brammer himself made the best, most trenchant assessment of what happened, writing in 1976:
Bestowed from birth with a lucy-in-the-sky twinkle and irreverence for every thing, [I] bounced around the sub-culture after leaving LBJ, writing unfinished masterpieces by the score, ingesting hogsheads of drugs and acquiring a local image as the best approximation of guru and human wonder around.
The wide-open counterculture enticements of the exploding sixties were irresistible to a bohemian, jazz-loving, methedrine-dependent intellectual of the fifties. The sixties promised everything, and Brammer went hog-wild in the decade of revolution. He got on Ken Kesey's bus and schlepped down to Mexico; he journeyed to San Francisco and Europe; he pursued drugs and women and had a long binge of it—in fact on into the next decade. And then, February 11, 1978, the clock ran down. His daughter Sidney, one of his three children to whom the novel is dedicated, remembers the day when she was called away from her classes on the University of Texas campus to claim the body of her father. He had died of an overdose in a ratty apartment where he was living at the time. His last job was as assistant hors d'oeuvre chef at the Driskill Hotel. It would cost about $3,000 for the funeral, and so far as Sidney knew, her father was penniless. She didn't know where the cash would come from to pay the undertaker. But Brammer had provided in a manner that any novelist would appreciate. He had tucked away $3,000—just enough to cover the funeral costs—in the toe of one of his boots.
The Gay Place is the most famous roman à clef in Texas writing. That may not be saying very much, but in Texas it matters. Or it used to. Willie Morris, author of a brilliant Texas book himself, North toward Home, has amusingly recounted his experience upon seeing himself in the pages of his friend's novel:
He had this protagonist, Willie England, and I had just returned from England. And he was the editor of a small weekly literary/political journal, in the unidentified capital of the largest state in the Southwest—and I had just taken over the Observer. And I said, 'Billy Lee, at least Thomas Wolfe changed the names and addresses."
With the passage of time, however, the identities of the actual people grow dim. The most famous roman à clef in American writing is The Sun Also Rises, yet today only specialists know the names of the actual people out of whom Hemingway fashioned Lady Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn, and all the rest. In this case, one towering presence comes alive off the page in a novel replete with the people in Brammer's life: Arthur "Goddam" Fenstemaker, perhaps the best portrait yet of the personality of Lyndon B. Johnson, the larger-than-life figure who intrigued, beguiled, and dominated Brammer's imagination until finally Brammer understood the man in a way that biographers such as Robert Caro seem not to have.
Although it has been widely assumed that LBJ was the sole impetus behind the creation of Fenstemaker, the character may be more of an amalgam than previously recognized. Two real-life political figures have been suggested: Earl Long, Louisiana's colorful governor whose sexual hijinks with stripper Blaze Starr were widely reported in the mid-1950s, and Beauford Jester, governor of Texas from 1946 until 1949. The only Texas governor to die in office, Jester succumbed on a train on July 11, 1949, in circumstances closely resembling those surrounding the death of Fenstemaker in The Gay Place. Other characters based upon real-life prototypes include Sweet Mama Fenstemaker, a weak satirical picture of Lady Bird; Hoot Gibson Fenstemaker, a right-on depiction of LBJ's brother-in-the-shadows, Sam Houston Johnson; Jay McGown, Brammer himself; Ouida, Nadine; and so on, right on down to the children. Several liberal politicians of the era have been nominated as the basis for Roy Sherwood, but one leading candidate, Bob Eckhardt, former liberal congressman from Houston, disavows such identifications: "There's not much of me in there, and I knew Brammer pretty well." Malcolm McGregor, former member of the House from El Paso, is another figure thought by many to be represented in the novel. There can be no doubt, however, about the authenticity of the meeting place in the novel where liberals, lobbyists, and university professors gather to talk and drink. The beer garden dubbed the Dearly Beloved Beer and Garden Party in the novel is a meticulous rendering of the site and ambience of Scholz Garten, the famous old German watering hole on San Jacinto Street in easy walking distance of the capitol and the university.
As to the novel's dependence upon facticity of time and place, Nadine Eckhardt has commented, "Every time I read The Gay Place I can't believe how much he got in there. He used everything." Nadine plans to write her own memoirs of that period. About the fifties there is this to be said: There is a secret, as yet unwritten, history of the remarkable women of that era, bright and talented women, who came to maturity before the women's movement and who often gave up even the idea of a career for the sake of husbands who lived, as the saying goes, in a man's world.
The Gay Place is also a what-if novel that asks the question, What if LBJ had been the governor of Texas? In retrospect, the governorship looks like small potatoes to a man whose ambition was always national. Johnson never aspired to be governor. During the Eisenhower era, the governor of Texas was Allan Shivers, a Democrat who supported Dwight D. Eisenhower, not Adlai Stevenson, in both 1952 and 1956. For this and other sins imputed to him, he was the bête noire of Texas liberals in the fifties. The liberal hero, Ralph Yarborough, was never able to be elected governor, so Brammer made it up: he elected LBJ in the province of his mind and set him at work upon the lives and imaginations of a handful of penny-ante state politicians. The result is a portrait of Johnson that is profoundly true in two respects. Brammer, better than anybody, captures the style and humor of LBJ as well as the authenticity of his commitment to social and economic justice.
The first words uttered by Arthur Fenstemaker evoke the LBJ persona. The governor, like Johnson an inveterate telephonist, rings up Roy Sherwood and identifies himself as Arthur "Goddam" Fenstemaker Immediately the governor invites Roy to come to the mansion and "break watermelon" with him. It's LBJ to the nth. Fenstemaker's name, incidentally, has provoked some interesting commentary. Lon Tinkle, a well-known Southwestern book reviewer of the day, thought the name meant "fence-mender," which is plausible, but Al Reinert, a journalist and friend of Brammer's, convincingly argues that the word derives from the German "windowmaker," meaning illusionist or visionary. Throughout the three novels Fenstemaker speaks in the unmistakable rhythms and tones of a word-drunk Southern politician, a consummate rhetorician who is half-Isaiah and half skirt-chasing egomaniac. From many wonderful examples of Fenstemaker as master politician, this one stands out. The governor is explaining his theory of politics:
You want to overturn the existin' institution, that's fine. But you got to know how to build a better one. The thing to do is work through the institution—figure a way to do that—to make a change and build a city and save the goddam world from collapse. You got to work through that institution, Roy..." Then he leaned back and flashed his shark's smile, saying, "An' I'm that institution currently..."
This is Fenstemaker/LBJ, the arm-twisting, snake-charming, "cornpone Buddha," the ultimate wheeler-dealer. But there is another side of Johnson that Brammer also captures better than just about anybody. This is Johnson the liberal, the genuine post-New Dealer who wants to improve people's lives and economic conditions. In the novel, Fenstemaker expresses real concern over such issues as integration and education. In the opening chapter he asks his Negro butler if things are getting any better for his people. And he means it. He energizes Roy Sherwood into passing an education bill. It's a part-way measure, and the pure liberal ideologues denounce him for it, but, like LBJ, Fenstemaker is a half-a-loaf politician.
The sincerity of Johnson's interest in improving the lot of down-and-out Texans is something that Brammer is very convincing about. A little-known radio speech that Congressman Johnson gave in 1938 sheds some light on the accuracy of Brammer's portrait. "Tarnish on the Violet Crown," it was called, an interesting title since Austin had been dubbed "the City of the Violet Crown" since the 1890s, owing to the twilight coloration of the hills surrounding the city beside the Colorado River. O. Henry is credited with coining the phrase. Anyway, here is Johnson in 1938:
Last Christmas, when all over the world people were celebrating the birth of the Christ child, I took a walk here in Austin—a short walk, just a few blocks from Congress Avenue, and there I found people living in such squalor that Christmas Day was to them just one more day of filth and misery. Forty families on one lot, using one water faucet. Living in barren one-room huts, they were deprived of the glory of sunshine in the daytime, and were so poor they could not even at night use the electricity that is to be generated by our great river. Here the men and women did not play at Santa Claus. Here the children were so much in need of the very essentials of life that they scarcely missed the added pleasures of our Christian celebration.
I found one family that might be called typical. Living within one dreary room, where no single window let in the beneficent sunlight, and where not even the smallest vagrant breeze brought them relief in the hot summer—here they slept, here they cooked and ate, here they washed themselves in a leaky tin tub after carrying the water for 100 yards. Here they brought up their children ill-nourished and amid sordid surroundings. And on this Christmas morning there was no Santa Claus for the 10 children, all under 10 years old, who scrambled around the feet of a wretched mother bent over her washtub, while in this same room her husband, and the father of the brood, lay ill with an infectious disease.
A staff writer for the congressman probably wrote this piece (Brammer, after all, years later, answered personal family correspondence for Johnson when he worked on his staff), but no matter: it came out under Johnson's name; it expressed his sentiments. The 1938 radio address contained the essential premises of the Great Society, Johnson's sixties updating of Rooseveltian liberal policies. Brammer saw and understood this side of Johnson in the fifties when many other liberals did not. Ronnie Dugger, for example, held a quite different view of Johnson. Writing of Brammer's novel in 1966, Dugger remarks,
From reading an early version of some of the book I knew I would resent Bill's politics in the novel—both his contempt for the Texas liberals, so many of whom I knew to be people I would go to the wall with, and his adulation, a kind of disillusioned hero worship, of his Lyndon Johnson figure, Governor Fenstemaker, with whom I would not.
As a novelist, not an ideologue, Brammer sought to capture the whole complex personality of Johnson. A 1957 memo from Brammer to Senator Johnson suggests the measure of his admiration: "Your strength, as always, again emerges from a joint mutual admiration society: Classic liberals and classic conservatives who can recognize a man for his abilities and honesty rather than whether he fits the mold of their own partisan views. " In any case, he got more of Johnson into his novel than many biographers have been able to.
The roots of Brammer's conception of Texas and how it might be corraled in fiction can be glimpsed in the pages of the Texas Observer, the liberal weekly founded by Ronnie Dugger in 1955 and for which Brammer wrote a number of pieces in those exciting mid-years of the decade. Typical Observer articles dealt with social and political themes of the day: "Negroes Still Take a Back Seat," "Shivers Backs Ban on Integration," "Our Separate But Unequal Schools—Negro Facilities Lag in Some Serious Ways," "Negro Boy Murdered in East Texas," "A Teacher Views Our Schools' Shortcomings—Sees Wasted Time, Effort, Money, Talent, Intelligence," "The Slums of Texas," and "Forgotten Texas—Our Aged Citizens Are in Poverty and Filth." Segregation, Education, and Poverty were central to the liberal agenda, and each finds its way into the texture of The Gay Place, which is sometimes wrongly described as a novel about the ultra-rich or "Super-Americans," the title of John Bainbridge's 1961 book about Texas.
The Observer was as interested in the powerful as in those without power and frequently ran knowing articles on the inner workings of the political process. In May 1955, for example, Ronnie Dugger produced a long article titled "Austin Lobbyists at Work—They Inform, Squire, Cajole, and Bribe." At one point he quotes a state senator who sounds as though he stepped out of the pages of The Gay Place: "Where's a goddamn lobbyist? I want somebody to pick up the check for my hotel bill, you can't find one around here." In another anecdote Dugger tells of four members of the House who spent an evening dining and drinking at a private club and cheerfully allowed a lobbyist to pick up the tab—a grand total of $20. The earnest young liberals of the Observer staff seem to have been fascinated with the simple, eternal fact that people in power enjoy using other people's money and that lobbyists are by nature engaged in precisely this most predictable of transactions.
Brammer himself wrote a series of articles devoted to explaining/ exposing another invisible influence-peddling connection, the activities of behind-the-scenes political operatives. "The Political Hucksters—'Hit 'Em Where They Live'" (May 9, 1955) dealt with power brokers such as "Phil Fox, the king of the political hucksters of Texas." This article also records an incident in Dallas in which Barefoot Sanders, a liberal member of the Texas House, was accosted by an opponent denouncing him as a Communist and Sanders engaged the man in a fistfight. This incident seems to underlie the sequence in "Room Enough to Caper" when Neil Christiansen physically removes his red-baiting opponent from a political banquet. Brammer also reported on the visits of the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate to his home state. "The Senator at His Precincts" (May 9, 1956) described Lyndon B. Johnson's convincing grass-roots persona at a precinct meeting in Johnson City; "Lyndon Comes Home" (August 24, 1955) described Johnson's loss of weight and fragile appearance following a heart attack; and "Pow-Wow on the Pedernales" (October 5, 1955) offered an insider's view of a political strategy meeting held at the Johnson ranch.
The Observer had broader cultural interests as well. Issues in those years were as apt to carry a review of an international work like Simone de Beauvoir's novel The Mandarins as of something more locally resonant like Stanley Walker's Home to Texas. There were finely honed naturalistic slice-of-life stories about life among working-class Texans, such as Winston Bode's "South San Antonio" (November 21, 1956) and "The Shearers" (November 28, 1956). And there were many pieces that dealt with literary issues pertaining to the Southwest.
In a biting review of a novel about Texas by an "outsider," Robert Wilder's The Wine of Youth, Dugger deplored the errors, the reliance upon gross, exaggerated stereotypes, and the general absurdity of passages such as the following, which describes a supposedly typical Texas social event:
Someone would say let's have a barbecue. The next thing they would be on their way to a ranch a hundred or so miles distant, halting to send telegrams to friends in New York, California, Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, Beaumont, telling them to hurry on over and eat a piece of meat. Since everyone in Texas knows everyone else, the barbecue might last for weeks.
Dugger denounced such treatment as "inept and inaccurate nonsense." Here was a phony, outsized Texas that had nothing to do with the diverse and complex state that he and Brammer were exploring in their journalism.
Brammer, perhaps inspired by the fact that Warner Bros. was filming Giant at Marfa, reviewed Edna Ferber's 1952 best-seller, the most famous outsider Texas novel of the era. In "On Rereading 'Giant'" (July 4, 1955) he declared the novel "richly-conceived and rottenly written" and went on to complain of Ferber's distortions: "Instead of portraying Texas as proud, primitive, super-patriots obsessed with sheer bigness and magnitude, which many of us are, she made us out as oil-rich robber barons and feudal lords, buffoons and mountebanks, which, it is hoped, few of us are." Brammer ended his reflections by taking up the question of what the modern Texas novel should be. He cited the recent observations of Harrison Smith, a Saturday Review editor, who suggested at a conference in Corpus Christi that Texas fiction had typically dealt with either a mixed population or the very wealthy and called for a writer to deal with "middle-classers who have come from other places." Brammer agreed and concluded: "These are the people who make up the state of mind that is Texas. Miss Ferber failed to sense this. Perhaps the next novelist will." 42
The next novelist, it seems, was waiting in the wings. His name was William, Billy Lee, Bill Brammer. We know little about the genesis of that first novel, "Country Pleasures." But again the pages of the Observer offer clues. Around the same time that he reread Ferber, he visited the set of Giant in Marfa and wrote an account of his observations. Most of what he reported in "A Circus Breaks Down on the Prairie" (July 4, 1955) appears in the opening pages of "Country Pleasures." The article begins with a description of the eye-catching false-front Victorian house constructed by the film company:
Some miles out from town, south on Highway 67, there looms large on the horizon a macabre structure which should remain for years a curiosity for West Texas cattle and cowpokes. Sticking starkly out of the prairies is a three-storied Victorian mansion, all gingerbread and lightning rods, rococo and utterly inelegant.
In the novel the Governor's party first glimpses the house in a passage that owes much to the original journalistic description: "Everyone strained to catch sight of the prefabricated Victorian mansion towering above the floor of the ranchland. The mansion loomed on the horizon like a great landlocked whale, gingerbread bas-relief against the backdrop of bleached dune and mountain and gunmetal sky." Other details in the Observer article are woven into the scene in the novel. Brammer reports that the local grass was sprayed with green dye to make it greener, and in the novel the viewpoint character, Jay McGown, the Governor's aide, cries: "They even dyed the grass green near the mansion.... It wouldn't respond to the water they piped in, so they dyed it green." Another detail that fascinated Brammer the reporter was trucks full of tumbleweed imported from California. In the novel these details are set forth by the Governor's colorful brother, Hoot Gibson Fenstemaker. His explanation of how the tumbleweed will be made to perform is a good example of Brammer's perfect-pitch dialogue: "It don't tumble.... Even when there's a good wind. It just don't tumble. So they brought out some big blowers—big 'lectric fans—to make the tumbleweed tumble when they shoot the moom pitcher." Curiously, Brammer's central image for describing the spectacle of the movie company that gave the article its title is shifted to another subject in the novel. In the article Brammer writes: "It's as if a vast, traveling circus has broken down in the midst of this desolation and set up shop for some kind of performance." In the novel the circus description applies to the college attended by Jay McGown and his ex-wife, the blonde bombshell Vicki McGown: "... you could have mistaken it for a great, shapeless circus that had somehow broken down on the edge of the city."
Clearly the trip to Marfa and the visit to the set of Giant stimulated Brammer's creative imagination, as he set to work on "Country Pleasures." There is another tantalizing possibility about the sources of his plot idea of placing the governor in the midst of a Hollywood crowd. There was an immediate precedent for this in real life. That same year, 1955, Governor Allan Shivers appeared in a Paramount production titled Lucy Gallant. Toward the end of the film Governor Shivers introduces the title character, played by Jane Wyman, to an audience assembled to see a Neiman Marcus-like style show. Brammer would likely have known about this film, and in any case he certainly could have read Dan Strawn's tongue-in-cheek review, "A Gallant in 'Gallant,"' which appeared in the Observer in November 1955. There is one odd echo of the Shivers business in the novel. The character who directs the film, based on George Stevens, who also appears in the circus article under his real name, in the novel is named Edmund Shavers.
Brammer's novel remains interesting on both the regional and the national level. In the Southwest it occupies an important space in the emergence of contemporary fiction set in the region. Published the same year as Larry McMurtry's Horseman, Pass By and one year after John Graves's Goodbye to a River, it did not, however, reap local rewards. Both Graves and McMurtry received cash prizes from the Texas Institute of Letters. Brammer, in fact, lost out to his friend, McMurtry. The three books and their takes on Texas are most instructive. Graves's book is a nonfiction narrative in the elegant folksy mode favored by J. Frank Dobie. Old-time Texans loved the book, and still do. Part elegy, part wry comedy, and part high pontification, Goodbye to a River is the culmination of the Dobie-Webb-Bedichek evocation; of a pastoral past in decline.
McMurtry's novel is also elegiac. Its portrait of the old cattleman Homer Bannon, whose values derive from the land and are founded on the old West Texas Protestant virtues of work, thrift and possession of cattle and land, has a deliberate end-of-an-era tone. In McMurtry's rancherly allegory, Hud, the hard-driving, hard-drinking, hard-everything stepson, is supposed to stand for an unprincipled modern generation that has replaced love for the land with lust for money, women, and oil. Between them, observing, appraising, judging, is the adolescent narrator, Lonnie Bannon, the sensitive youth, the proto-English major. Horseman, Pass By contains some brilliant writing and is the first believable account of a Texas male adolescent in Texas writing. (Katherine Anne Porter's Miranda stories, written in the mid-thirties, are the first great portrait of coming of age in Texas, a fact ignored, however, by both Dobie and McMurtry, between them the two chief progenitors of the patriarchal legend of Texas.)
Dobie admired Graves's book but had deep reservations about those of McMurtry and Brammer. Though he found McMurtry's portrait of the old cowman "good in places," he judged McMurtry overall as lacking in "ripeness." (McMurtry was twenty-four at the time.) Of Brammer's book, however, Dobie had nothing good to say. He inscribed his overall assessment in the flyleaf of his copy:
Not a character in the thick novel who is not cheap. Some talk about what a great man Governor Fenstemaker is, but he never appears more than an astute fixer, babbling now & then a good phrase. We are in the middle of politics for 175,000 words and nobody actually every [sic] does anything but drink and drink & drink to boredom & screw, & screw & screw to death—the great governor's climax. I expected satire, inside views & a little wisdom at least. Bill Brammer has been with Senator Lyndon Johnson for some time.
Thus the official voice of Texas literary judgment. Dobie said much the same thing about Edwin Shrake's But Not for Love (1964), an urban novel inspired by Brammer. "Over drinking of everything but water. Pages & pages of talk that reveal nothing but more drinking, more smoking [sic?], mere facility on part of the author, no character development, no integration with plot." In such reactions it is not easy to tell whether the basis of Dobie's dislike is primarily aesthetic—thus the complaints about length and lack of conciseness—or moral—the degenerate (or is it merely modern?) conduct of the characters.
The Graves and McMurtry books inhabit Nostalgia Ville: a river, a ranch. But not The Gay Place. Brammer's vision of Texas is urban, and in this conception lies one of the important insights the novel has to offer. Typically it is Fenstemaker who makes the point. He is fulminating against a right-wing red-baiting McCarthyite: "...what he doesn't know is that most of us came into town one Saturday a few years ago and stayed ... We're urban, by God. All of a sudden the people in the metropolitan areas outnumber the rednecks ... They come into town—they buy little houses and color television and Volkswagen cars." This is new Texas, ca. 1958, and Brammer's novel accurately predicts the continuing urbanization of the state so that by now, in the mid-nineties, the demographics are around 82 percent living in cities and suburbs—urban, by God.
Brammer's novel is also topographically all-encompassing. Its famous opening pages reveal a helicopter-like survey of the variousness and immensity of the Texas landscape. Texas as a transitional region of Gulf coastal lands, Deep South-like pine forests, rocky Hill Country, and Western prairie and grazing lands are all caught in the zoom lens of the pictorial imagination. But mostly, Texas is urban in the post-WWII era, and Brammer was the first powerful novelist to make this claim. (There had been earlier Texas urban novels, for example, Philip Atlee's The Inheritors , and George Williams's The Blind Bull , but none had anywhere near the impact of The Gay Place upon aspiring young writers.)
Early in Chapter 1 Brammer detaches his novel from the agrarian tradition. Roy Sherwood wakes up in his car with a hangover. (Most of the characters in the novel have hangovers most of the time.) Groggy but in good spirits, he first hears, then sees, a family of Mexican American migrant workers. This family's relation to the land is itself modern in a literary sense, as they are no landholding farm family with roots in the nostalgic legend of agrarian Texas. And they quickly disappear in this novel, which moves on to its real subject—urban people and political power, not land.
At the national level, beyond Texas, The Gay Place is a searching and reflective document of America in the fifties. Brammer touches upon many of the dominant themes of the era, including the conflicts in ending segregation, the role of money and influence in government, and the Cold War atmosphere of lingering McCarthyism. Brammer's fifties are recognizably those of stereotype and legend: an era of comfortable if not bloated affluence, a sense of American power at the apex of its arc, a nation at peace. It is also an era of political quiescence, of liberal paralysis, of what Brammer called, in an Observer piece in 1961, "the apathetic conditions that obtained overall." Looking back at the impact of the Observer under the leadership of Ronnie Dugger, Brammer characterized the era in extremely negative terms:
Dugger and the Observer survive, and the revolution is on the record for all to see, obvious to anyone who remembers how it was in Texas during that hysterical, No-Think half decade of the early Fifties—our own mid-century Inquisition—when nearly everyone lay torpid and uncomplaining in the clutch of the Peckerwood and the Ignoranti.
"Our Hookworm Belt complacencies," he called the era in another piquant phrase from that article.
At the same time Brammer captures hints of cultural change ahead. Hipsters and politicians talk of Zen and Buddhism and existentialism and jazz. There is a sense of imminent cultural revolution waiting just 'round the corner. Brammer knew what his old friend David Halberstam has recently shown in his book The Fifties, that the Eisenhower era was a lot more complex and interesting than retro television sitcoms would suggest. In "Room Enough to Caper," he also proved prophetic. This story of a young man with good looks, intellectual savoir faire, and excellent political instincts—in short, a great campaigner in the coming telegenic age—is ahead of its time. Not until the Robert Redford film The Candidate would there be as searching a study of the politician as hollow man, a man capable of winning elections but without any sustaining vision, without any reason or motive to serve beyond ego satisfaction.
Narratively, too, Brammer's book reached far beyond Texas for its models. Brammer was extremely well read. It is hard to imagine another Texas novelist of the period leading off a book with a beautifully apt quotation from Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. Though the novel is often compared with Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, its narrative procedure derives not from Warren's first-person, tough-guy vernacular but from classical American social realism, the rhythms of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom Brammer deeply admired, Fitzgerald in turn deriving in part from Edith Wharton and Henry James, novelists who sought to express the manners and morals of the day. In "Room Enough to Caper" and "Country Pleasures" Brammer also incorporates Joycean interior monologue (probably filtered through William Styron's Lie Dozen in Darkness), something else that sets him apart from regional writing of the period. There are stream-of-consciousness sequences in both of these books. There is also a rich allusiveness, from Dave Brubeck to George Orwell to the Bible. Much of Fenstemaker's memorable talk derives from the cadences of Isaiah. Brammer is on record about this influence, remarking in 1961 , "The only researching I did for the novels was a re-reading of the Old Testament (in its oldstyle prose) and I've never enjoyed anything more."
The most important literary source is T. S. Eliot. The interior monologue section of "Room Enough to Caper," for example, elides the young senator's voice with Eliot's vacillating, indecisive Prufrock and the novel's full-throttled man of action, Arthur Fenstemaker:
Am no presiding officer.
Wasn't meant to be.
I'm the goddam Prince! An easy tool.
Other specific Eliotic echoes from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" include "I grow old" in one of Neil's self-reflective moments and "all those scattered buttends" in Sarah Lehman's stream-of-consciousness reverie in Chapter 15 of "Country Pleasures," which recalls Prufrock's "all the butt-ends of my days and ways." Unmistakable also, and very funny, is the actor Greg Calhoun's pastiche of Eliot's "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" in "Country Pleasures" (which title in turn derives from one of Eliot's favorite poets, John Donne.) In the actor's hands the famous line from The Waste Land becomes, "I will show you death in a handful of bust."
More importantly than these verbal echoes, the method of The Waste Land informs The Gay Place. Like many post-Waste Land novelists, Brammer adopted the mythic method (which Eliot in turn seems to have taken over from Joyce's Ulysses.) Put simply, the author underpins the narrative with a mythic substructure, playing off the present against the past. "Room Enough to Caper" makes the most abundant use of the method, as protagonist Neil Christiansen returns home at age thirty-three, at Easter time, to face a crisis of personal belief. Should he run for the Senate or not? Does he believe in anything or not? At one point he ponders Christ's passion: "They just didn't make passion like that any more. He tried to remember the last time he'd seen real passion, but nothing came to him. It was all a cheap imitation, a fraudulent compound of polemic, spleen, and seasons of rut." Filled with indecisiveness, he thinks at one point: "If I could read that script I just might walk on the goddam water." Here one of Jesus' miracles is layered with Fenstemaker's signature blasphemy. Later Neil thinks of himself as a "dime store Jesus." The whole Christian subtext is summed up in Neil's brother's meditation on God in our time, quoting from an unidentified source: "Some lines came to him...'For anyone alone and without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Hence, one must choose a master, God being out of style...' " If The Gay Place has a god, it is Fenstemaker, but he proves a completely secular deity, one unable even to save himself from perdition and destruction, no matter how much Isaiah he quotes.
Like the best of novels, The Gay Place captures its own era and speaks to our own in rhythms that we remember.
J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor
The University of Texas
The country is most barbarously large and final. It is too much country—boondock country—alternately drab and dazzling, spectral and remote. It is so wrongfully muddled and various that it is difficult to conceive of it as all of a piece. Though it begins simply enough, as a part of the other.
It begins, very like the other, in an ancient backwash of old dead seas and lambent estuaries, around which rise cypress and cedar and pine thickets hung with spiked vines and the cheerless festoons of Spanish moss. Farther on, the earth firms: stagnant pools are stirred by the rumble of living river, and the mild ferment of bottomland dissolves as the country begins to reveal itself in the vast hallucination of salt dome and cotton row, tree farm and rice field and irrigated pasture and the flawed dream of the cities. And away and beyond, even farther, the land continues to rise, as on a counterbalance with the water tables, and then the first faint range of the West comes into view: a great serpentine escarpment, changing colors with the hours, with the seasons, hummocky and soft-shaped at one end, rude and wind-blasted at the other, blue and green, green and gray and dune-colored, a staggered faultline extending hundreds of miles north and south.
This range is not so high as it is sudden and aberrant, a disorder in the even westerly roll of the land. One could not call it mountain, but it is a considerable hill, or set of hills, and here again the country is transformed. The land rises steeply beyond the first escarpment and everything is changed: texture, configuration, blistered façade, all of it warped and ruptured and bruisecolored. The few rivers run deep, like old wounds, boiling round the fractures and revealing folds of slate and shell and glittering blue limestone, spilling back and across and out of the hills toward the lower country.
The city lies against and below two short spiny ribs of hill. One of the little rivers runs round and about, and from the hills it is possible to view the city overall and draw therefrom an impression of sweet curving streets and graceful sweeping lawns and the unequivocally happy sound of children always at play. Closer on, the feeling is only partly confirmed, though it should seem enough to have even a part. It is a pleasant city, clean and quiet, with wide rambling walks and elaborate public gardens and elegant old homes faintly ruined in the shadow of arching poplars. Occasionally through the trees, and always from a point of higher ground, one can see the college tower and the Capitol building. On brilliant mornings the white sandstone of the tower and the Capitol's granite dome are joined for an instant, all pink and cream, catching the first light.
On a midsummer morning not very long ago the sun advanced on the city and lit the topmost spines of hill, painting the olive drab slopes in crazy new colors, like the drawing of a spangled veil. Then the light came closer, touching the tall buildings and the fresh-washed streets. The nearly full-blown heat came with it, quick and palpitant. It was close to being desert heat: sudden, emphatic, dissolving chill and outdistancing rain...
It was neither first light nor early heat that caused the two politicians to come struggling up from sleep at that hour, but an old truck carrying migratory cotton pickers.
The younger of the two politicians was named Roy Sherwood, and he lay twisted sideways in the front seat of an automobile that was parked out front of an all-night supermarket. Arthur Fenstemaker, the other one, the older one, floundered in his bedcovers a few blocks distant in the Governor's mansion.
The old truck banged along the streets, past dazzling store fronts and the juicy Pig Stand and the marble façades of small banks in which deposits were insured to ten thousand dollars. The dozen children in the back of the truck had been first to come awake. They pulled aside the canvas flaps and peered out at the city, talking excitedly, whooping and hee-hawing as the old truck rolled north, straining, toward the Capitol grounds and the Governor's mansion, where Arthur Fenstemaker slept, and the supermarket where Roy Sherwood's car was parked.
The truck came to a sudden stop and began, with a terrible moaning of gears and transmission, to back into a parking space next to Roy Sherwood's car.
Roy heard the commotion and blinked his sore eyes in the early light. He struggled to untangle his long legs from between the steering wheel and seat cushion, and he was able, finally, to sit up and examine the truck. He unrolled a window and leaned his head out, taking deep breaths, blinking his eyes. The children in the truck watched him gravely for a moment and then began to giggle. Their laughter subsided abruptly when Roy called out to them: "Buena dia..."
There was silence and then a small voice answered back: ..dia...
Roy smiled and opened the car door. He stood on the cool pavement for a moment, weaving slightly, trying to hold his balance. He was dizzy with fatigue and an hour's poor sleep and possibly a hangover. "One hell of an awful dia," he muttered under his breath. The children were laughing again, and fairly soon he began to feel better. The driver of the truck climbed down and came round to Roy's side to stare at him. The fellow had a murderous look—a bandit's look. He was wearing a wrinkled double-breasted suit coat over what appeared to be a polo shirt and uncommonly dirty and outsized denim slacks. He stared at Roy with his bandit's eyes until Roy lifted his hand in a vague salute. Then the Mexican smiled, showing hilarious buck teeth, lifted his arm in the same indecisive gesture and almost immediately turned and walked toward the supermarket, flapping his feet in gray tennis shoes.
The children attempted to engage Roy in conversation. Roy came closer to the back of the truck, trying to understand some of it, cocking his head and listening carefully and interrupting now and then: "Qué?... Cómo?... Despacio, for chrissake, despacio..." The children giggled hysterically; two or three adults in the front cab stared at him, looking uneasy, and finally Roy gave it up and waved goodbye and wandered into the supermarket.
The inside of the store was aglow with yellow light. Everything was gorgeous and brightly packaged. Only the people—the cashier and the Mexican gathering breakfast staples and Roy himself—seemed out of phase with the predominating illusion. Roy looked all around, examining the market with as much wonder and concentration as might have been demonstrated in viewing Indian cave mosaics or a thousand years old cathedral. He stared all around and then he uncapped a bottle of milk and tore open a bag of cinnamon buns. He wandered over the market eating and drinking, pausing occasionally to stare enraptured at a prime cut of beef or a phonograph album or a frozen pizza or a stack of small redwood picnic tables. There seemed no limit to what the market might conceivably have in stock. Roy decided the pussy willow cuttings were his favorite; they were a little fantastic: out of season, out of habitat... He wondered if the pussy willow had been shipped fresh-frozen from the East, like oysters or cheese blintzes. He moved on; he had something else in mind.
He located this other without difficulty—a tall pasteboard box containing twenty-four ice cream cones, maple flavored. The box of cones was part of it; the plastic scoop stapled to the outside of the box solved the next most immediate problem. He carried the cones and the scoop to the cashier and then went back to pick up two half-gallon cartons of ice cream.
Outside again, at the back end of the truck, the children and two or three of the older Mexicans crowded round to watch. Roy left off serving after a while, letting one of the older girls take his place. There were a few accented whoops of Ize-Cream...Axe Creeem, but the children were unusually quiet for the most part, sweetly, deliriously happy waiting in line to be served. Presently, he returned to his car and sat in the driver's seat to watch. One hell of a crazy dia, he reminded himself. Not to mention the dia before and the night or the goddam noche in between.
He turned now and looked in the back seat. It was all there... All of it... All his art objects purchased during his twelve hours travel on the day before: the button-on shoes, the iron stewpot, the corset model, the portrait of President Coolidge, the Orange Crush dispenser with its rusted spigot, part of an old upright piano. Everything except... But he remembered now. The television set, one of the earliest models, big as a draft animal, with a seven-inch picture tube... He'd left it in kneehigh johnson grass fifty miles outside town. He grunted to himself, thinking of the television set: it was a terrible loss; he'd been blinded by the wine on the day before and thoughtlessly left the television behind. He grunted again and re-examined his treasure in the back seat.
The Mexican children were finished with their ice cream, and he could hear their singsong voices rising in volume. The elder, the old bandit in gray tennis shoes, came out of the supermarket carrying his grocery sack. He moved past Roy, nodding, showing his wonderful teeth.
"You need a stewpot?" Roy said suddenly.
The Mexican was jerked back as if suspended by a coil spring. His face twitched, but he managed to smile and mumble an incomprehensible something in Spanish.
"Stew pot," Roy repeated. "Fine piece of workmanship... You need one? For free... por nada... Tiene usted una stew pot-to?"
The old Mexican gasped in alarm, altogether mystified. Roy climbed out of the car and opened the back door, pointing to the soot-covered vessel. It was very much like the ones in which neighborhood washerwomen had boiled clothes during his childhood. He loved the stewpot. But now he knew he must make the gesture. It was part of being a public figure. He addressed the Mexican: "Here... You want it? Desire you the stew pot?"
Roy struggled with the pot; it was big as a washtub. The old man accepted it on faith, smiling as if vastly pleased. He bowed politely and turned toward the truck, carrying the stewpot with great dignity. The children in back greeted him with strident questions. Roy sat in the front seat of the car and watched, wondering if he ought to make a speech. They'd never understand a word, but he could make pleasant sounds. It was no matter. His Mexicans back home never understood anything, either. You just paid their poll taxes and showed them where to mark ballots when election time came round. He'd made a speech the night before. One of his best. Parked alongside a narrow river, he and the girl had lain on a picnic blanket and finished the last of the wine and the chicken. Then he had climbed a huge magnolia tree and plucked a great white bloom from the top, before descending to one of the lower limbs to make the presentation speech. He'd never been in better form. Though there had been some difficulty about addressing the girl. Using her name seemed to take all the fire out of the occasion. "Ladies .." he had said in the beginning, but it wasn't quite right. Nor "Fellow ladies..." He'd made a number of attempts: "Dear Lady" and "Most High and Mighty Ouida, Bride of My Youth, My Rock, My Fortress, My Deliverance, Horn of My Salvation and My High Tower..." But that had been too excessive for what, basically, was meant to be a ceremony of some dignity and restraint. He'd finally called her "My Dear Miss Lady Love .. "
He thought he might step outside the car and possibly stand on the Orange Crush dispenser, addressing the Mexican children briefly, but after a moment the truck started up with a great thrashing sound and began backing out of the driveway. Roy sat for a moment, rubbing his eyes, and then he got his own car started and proceeded slowly down the main street of the city behind the truck carrying the cotton pickers. After a block or so, he grew impatient with the business of waving at the children, and nodding, and blinking his lights, and waving again; and finally he raced the car's engine and passed them by. A noisy, high-pitched cry came from the children; their flapping arms caught his vision briefly through the side windows. He grinned oafishly, studying his face in the mirror. "I have a way with crowds," he said aloud to himself. "I have gifts of rare personal magnetism..." He listened to the dying cheers from in back, and he thought he detected a clanging in the midst of it, a series of bell tones, deep and dull and flattish, metal on metal. My old iron stewpot, he thought...
Arthur Fenstemaker heard the cheers and the children's laughter and the groan of the truck's motor blended with the blows struck on the stewpot. He lay in his bed on the second floor of the Governor's mansion and listened thoughtfully. He was reminded for a moment of an old International he'd driven in the oil fields years before. The Mexicans were blocks away now, and he opened his eyes, still wondering over the sound from the street below. He reached for cigarettes and matches. After a moment he lay back in the bed, gasping for breath. He left the cigarette burning in a tray and pulled himself closer to Sweet Mama Fenstemaker. His right arm was pressed under his own huge weight, but he did not want to turn away just yet. Sweet Mama smelled goddam good; she nearly always perfumed herself at bedtime.
The Governor lay like that for several minutes, listening for sounds in the house or from the street, pressing his big nose against his wife's skin, until the kitchen help began to arrive downstairs. Then he rolled off the bed and went to the bathroom. He brushed his teeth and smoked another cigarette; he swallowed pills and massaged his scalp and began to stalk about the second floor of the mansion. He looked in on his brother: Hoot Gibson Fenstemaker lay sleeping quietly, knotted in bedclothes. The Governor turned back to his dressing room and stared at himself in a full-length mirror, sucking in his stomach, shifting from side to side. He slipped on gartered hose and shoes and a robe, and again stood listening, leaning over a stairwell and cocking his head. Soon he could hear the limousine being eased into position on the concrete drive. Fenstemaker strode down to the end of the hall and opened a casement window. A highway patrolman circled the car, examining tires, polishing chrome. The Governor put his head through the window and yelled: "Hidyl"
The patrolman looked up, squinting against the sun, trying to smile.
"Hah'r yew, Mist' Fenstemaker," he said.
"Nice mornin'," the Governor said, looking around.
"Hassah!" the patrolman said.
The patrolman stood on the concrete apron, gazing up at the Governor. He kicked a tire with the heel of his shoe; he patted a fender of the car. He stared at the Governor, and finally added, "... Sure nice one..."
Fenstemaker turned his head, looking over the city from the second-story window. The mansion was constructed along Georgian lines and was situated on a small rise that placed it nearly level with the Capitol dome and some of the office buildings downtown. Mist blurred the hilltops to the west, and occasionally, a mile or more away, lake water flashed in the sun. The smell of flowers, blooming in profusion in the backyard garden, was fused with the harsh bouquet of compost heaps and kitchen coffee. Fensternaker pinched his big nose and took deep breaths. The patrolman continued to gawk at him.
"I'm not goin' anywhere right off," Fenstemaker said.
He pulled his head back inside and rang for his coffee. He sat at a desk in his study and shuffled through papers. The butler arrived with a small coffeepot, dry toast, juice, and a half-dozen newspapers.
"You had your breakfast?" Fenstemaker said. "You had your coffee?"
"Yessir," the butler said.
Fenstemaker sipped his coffee and shuffled papers.
"I hope it was better than this," he said. "Siddown and have some more."
The butler poured himself a cup and stood blowing on it, waiting.
"Siddown for Christ sake," Fenstemaker said.
"I'm just goddammin'." "Yes sir."
"Let's get a new brand of coffee," Fenstemaker said. He made a face.
"I'll tell the cook."
"Nothin' tastes like it used to," Fenstemaker said. "Not even vegetables."
"Sweet potatoes especially," the butler said.
"Not even goddam sweet potatoes," Fenstemaker said.
The two of them sipped coffee. The Governor turned through the newspapers, talking but not looking up. "You think it's gettin' better?"
"Bein' a colored man. You think it's any better?"
The butler looked at him desperately. "I got a good job," he said.
The Governor did not seem to pay attention. He went on talking and turning pages. "Maybe little better, I guess... Discussions goin' on.... Least that's not like it used to be. Hell! I remember old Pitchfork Ben Tillman—the things he said..." Fenstemaker broke off momentarily, peering at the newsprint, then went on: "Of course bein' better still don't make it very good. I was thinkin' yesterday, signin' my mail, how I'd feel if I wrote a public official about, you know, my rights? I was lookin' over what I'd been sayin'. 'Well now this sure is a problem, involvin' grave emotional questions, and we can't tolerate havin' second-class citizens in this free country and I'm sure gonna do what I can... Try to make reasonable progress toward a solution... Sure keep your views in mind...' Why God damn! Some cornpone Buddha say that to me, I'd set a bomb off under him."
The butler grinned. "I think most colored people vote for you," he said. "Even when you don't say things exact..." He began gathering cups and saucers.
"I'm a damned good politician," Fenstemaker said. "I know how good I am and I ain't doin' much, so what about the others not so good? Goddam and hell!"
"You want another pot?" the butler said.
"Yes," the Governor said. "Switch to that ersatz stuff—I think it's probably better than this... And some fruit. They got any watermelon down there?"
"I'll see," the butler said. "They don't, we get you some."
The Governor's brother, Hoot Gibson Fenstemaker, appeared at the door. He rubbed his eyes and smiled, looking deranged. "You get me some coffee, Jimmy?" he said. The butler nodded, carrying the tray. Hoot Gibson stepped inside.
"You enjoy that party last night?" the Governor said.
"Sure did. I like parties here."
"I think you danced with every lady."
"I think I did," Hoot Gibson said. "I liked that orchestra, too. It was like Wayne King."
"I remember at college you had some Wayne King records," the Governor said, looking up from the papers. "And Henry Busse. What in hell ever happened to Henry Busse?"
"He dead?" Hoot Gibson said. He thought a moment. "Hot Lips! I booked old Henry Busse once for the gymnasium. A dance. Made two hundred dollars promoting old Henry Busse..." Hoot Gibson's eyes went cloudy, thinking about Henry Busse. He sipped from his brother's coffee cup.
Fenstemaker looked up patiently. "Don't make that noise," he said. Hoot Gibson gripped the cup with both hands and stared at the coffee. The Governor read the papers. Hoot Gibson picked up one of the sheets and glanced over the headlines. "I think I got a hangover," he said.
The Governor cleared his throat but did not comment. "I might go back to bed awhile," Hoot Gibson said.
"Take some aspirin and sleep another hour," the Governor said.
Hoot Gibson stood and stretched and scratched himself. He loosened the drawstring on his pajamas and retied it. "I think I'll do that," he said. "... You got anything for me today?"
The Governor looked up and said: "You remember that fellow talkin' to me and Jay. last night? Up here—out on the screen porch?"
"That new lobbyist?"
"That's the one."
"I know him. He's workin' the Capitol nearly every day now."
"Well suppose you keep an eye on him," the Governor said. "Follow him around. Or get someone to do it for you. Find out where he goes, who he's seein'. Do that today and tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Don't for God's sake let him know he's bein' watched. Give me a report—and don't come around tellin' me about it. Write it up."
Hoot Gibson looked vastly pleased. He vanished down the hall, humming to himself.
The Governor signed some papers. He looked at the clock—it was nearly seven; nearly nine in the East. He reached for the phone and got the long distance operator, making notes of persons he could call in the Eastern time zone. He talked with an economist in New York. They discussed investments; Fenstemaker asked questions about the stock market; he complained that none of the big investors seemed interested in municipal bonds. "I got some mayors in trouble," he said. "They need help. You got any ideas?" He listened to the economist's ideas. They complained to each other about the goddam Republican high interest rates.
Fenstemaker rang off and placed more calls; he talked with his two Senators, a union official in Philadelphia, a college professor in Boston. The professor was a nephew whom he'd put through college a half-dozen years before. "Listen," the Governor said, "those are wonderful speeches you been sendin' down—especially if I was runnin' in Oyster Bay or Newport. But I'm not, happily. Try to remember I'm way the hell down here in coonass country... You forget your beginnin's? You need a little trip home? Might do you good... I need some ideas... You got good ideas... But I want 'em in speeches that sound like Arthur Fenstemaker and not some New goddam England squire..."
He completed the calls and turned back to the papers on his desk. An assistant had left him a note attached to a hand-written letter: "This may interest you, though I advise against reading it when you're trying to shake off a low mood. It is very sad."
He read the letter attached:
We the people of the 9th grade Civics class at Hopkinsville feel that you the people of the Government should try to conquer the world here before you try to conquer outer space. We feel that there may be some kind of gas on the moon that is under the surface and if a rocket hit it, it may open the surface of the moon and these gases may escape and get into our own environment and kill us. So we feel that you should leave well-enough alone. We feel that if the Good Lord had wanted us to conquer outer space he would have put here on earth instruments instead of people. We would like to know what you think about this issue. Sincerely,
The 9th Grade Class
Fenstemaker rubbed the back of his neck and pulled on his nose and sat staring at the names of the 9th Grade Class at Hopkinsville. He put the letter down and reached for the phone.
Jay McGown's voice came to him feebly; then it got stronger. There was music being played on the radio in Jay's room. The music ended and an announcer talked about a cure for piles.
"Sir?" Jay was saying. "... Sir?"
"What in hell's goin' on there?"
"You think we got a chance on that school bill?"
"School bill? Sure we got a chance," Jay said.
"I got your note and that letter," the Governor said.
"Let's take a run with that bill this week," Fenstemaker said.
"You think this week's really the best time?" Jay said. "Old Hoffman's still in the hospital. We'd need him. He wrote the damn thing. At least his name's on it."
"Who's that? Who wrote it, then?"
"A lobbyist for the schoolteachers. A lawyer from the education agency."
"Well let's take a run with it," Fenstemaker said.
"Who'll we get to floor-manage?"
"Who's on the committee?" the Governor said.
"You know that committee better than I do," Jay said.
"Name some," Fenstemaker said. "I forget."
"Who you want me to name?"
Jay named some of the members.
"They don't sound so good to me," the Governor said.
"They aren't," Jay said. "We'd probably end up with half a bill. Old Hoffman's not much, but he won't lose us any votes. He knows how to manage a bill."
"How 'bout Roy Sherwood?" Fenstemaker said.
"Roy's a good friend of mine," Jay said.
"But he's not exactly one of our boys."
"Maybe he just never got invited in," the Governor said.
"He's pretty damned independent," Jay said. "And lazy. That's a bad combination."
Chimes from the college signaled the half hour. The highway patrolman polished the limousine on the side drive. The butler came into the room with an enormous slice of watermelon. Fenstemaker broke off a piece with his hand and began to eat. There was a silence on the phone while the Governor ate watermelon. Then he said: "He help write that bill? He do anything at all?"
There was another silence before Jay began to answer: "That's right. He helped a lot. Fact is, he was the only one on that lousy committee who gave a damn. With Hoffman gone."
"Well old Hoff got it reported out for us before he went to the hospital," Fenstemaker said.
"How'd you know about Roy?"
"It just sort of came to me in the night," the Governor said.
"Well I thought you might disapprove. My getting him to help us. He's a friend of mine, like I said, and we needed some help from someone on the committee. Desperately."
"All right," the Governor said. "That's just fine. I'm delighted. You think he could carry it?"
"I don't know. I really don't. He's never worked a bill in three terms here. I'm not even sure he'd accept the job."
"Well I'll just ask him and see."
"You think he could hold the votes we've got? He might scare some off."
"See about that, too," the Governor said. He paused, and then added: "He ain't worn himself out on Earle Fielding's wife, has he?"
There was a pause before Jay answered: "That piece of information just come to you in the night, too?"
"Everything does," the Governor said, his voice warm with pleasure. "Borne on the wind. Like a cherub. It do fly... Listen... We'll just see how old Roy reacts. Okay? Take a little run. Pull out all the stops and try to get this thing through. Maybe tomorrow. We can't afford to wait much longer. They'll be building up opposition soon's it appears Hoffman's well. We put off any time, we lose votes and we lose hard cash in that bill... You want some cash for Hopkinsville, don't you? We'll just have to get that goddam thing through in a hurry. Can't afford to have any great debates..."
Jay was silent on the other end of the line while Fenstemaker talked. Then the Governor rang off without formality. He dialed another number on the phone and waited during the six or seven rings. He pressed the disconnect and dialed again. After another interval, Roy Sherwood answered.
"What're you doin'?" Fenstemaker boomed.
"Sleeping," Roy Sherwood said. "Real good, too."
"Hell of a note," Fenstemaker said. "World's cavin' in all round us; rocket ships blastin' off to the moon; poisonous gas in our environment... Sinful goddam nation... laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers. My princes are rebels and companions of thieves...
... A horror and a hissing..."
"Who the hell is this?"
"Isaiah," Fenstemaker said. "The Prophet Isaiah."
"I'm going to hang up in just about three seconds," Roy said, "but first I'd really like to know who the hell this is?"
"Arthur Goddam Fenstemaker. Hah yew?"
"I think it really is," Roy said after a moment. "Governor? That you?"
"Come over the Mansion and see," Fenstemaker said. "You like watermelon? I got some damn good watermelon. You come over here and we'll break watermelon together."
Roy's response was plaintive but respectful: "It's awful early in the morning for breakfast."
"I know," Roy said. "That gives me nearly three hours sleep."
"Well, you're a young man. I needed five."
Roy was silent.
"You come over and talk to me about this bill?" Fenstemaker said.
"What bill's that?"
"That school thing you did for Jay. Damn good job."
"Thanks. I appreciate it. But what do you want to talk about?"
"About when you're gonna get off your ass and pass it for me."
"Pass it. Hell, I'm just the ghost writer. Passin' it is your—"
"I mean take charge in that madhouse."
"I mean floor-manage for me."
"You sure you got the right man, Governor? I never in my life—"
"I got you, all right," the Governor said. "Roy Emerson Sherwood. Non-practicin' lawyer. Family's got cattle, little cotton. Never struck no oil, though. Elected sixty-third Legislature. Reelected without opposition to sixty-fourth, sixty-fifth. Never did goddam thing here till you wrote that bill the other day..."
"You got the right man, I guess," Roy said. "You help me with that bill on the floor?" "When you plan to bring it up?"
"Day after, maybe. Come on over here."
"Governor, I couldn't learn the number that bill, condition I'm in right now. Let me sleep a little. Just a little. Let me think about it."
"Sinful goddam nation... Laden with iniquity... My princes are—"
"Al! right," Roy said wearily.
"How you like your goddam eggs?" the Governor said.
“An acute portrait of the capitol city’s politics and social mores, circa the fifties.”
“The best novel about American politics in our time.”
“An American classic in which a Johnsonian figure named Arthur 'Goddam' Fenstemaker strides through the pages, large, earthy, intelligent, threatening, working it seemed more often on the side of the angels than against them.”