A political and pop-cultural view of midcentury America in relation to the enigmatic life of a Texas-bred political journalist and novelist.
Outside of Texas and certain literary circles, Billy Lee Brammer (1929-1978) may not evoke the cult recognition shared by his contemporaries, such as Ken Kesey or Tom Wolfe. In this entertaining and colorful new book, fiction writer and biographer Daugherty (Emeritus, English/Oregon State Univ.; Let Us Build Us a City, 2017, etc.) goes a long way toward elevating Brammer’s status. He also offers a generous glimpse into the political and personal life of Lyndon Johnson. In the mid-1950s, Brammer started working as a staff writer for Johnson, then a Texas senator, after gaining Johnson’s attention with favorable articles he wrote while an editor at the Texas Observer. Together with his first wife, Brammer maintained a demanding schedule, and he developed what would become a lifelong dependence on amphetamines, sustaining him while he also worked on his fiction. Eventually, these efforts led to his groundbreaking 1959 novel, The Gay Place. Focusing his central character largely on Johnson, Brammer’s only published novel encompasses three related novellas. Together with fellow natives such as Larry McMurtry, Brammer would alter the narrow backwoods perception of Texans. “His arch storytelling style seemed unique,” writes Daugherty, “because other writers had not yet exploited Texas’s rich hypocrisies—the bad behavior of its politicians and religious leaders. Demographically, Texas became more urban than rural in 1950. A decade later this population shift was producing striking cultural changes. Brammer was the most sophisticated, most literary example of a Texas boy from an essentially rural background to adopt an urban lifestyle, to loosen his grip on the culture’s cherished traditions, to explore the latest fashions, gadgets, art, and music.” His increasing drug dependency, which overtook any further writing ambitions, served to firmly position him within the center of the evolving 1960s counterculture movement, as he explored various underground venues and encountered such icons as Janis Joplin.
An engrossing, well-documented biography of a largely forgotten writer and his place within a quickly changing period of the 20th century.