Return to the Gay Place

Forty years ago a little-known writer named Billy Lee Brammer published one of the great political novels of all time. The Gay Place depicts an Austin that no longer exists in a state whose politics have changed completely.

  1. “The country is most barbarously large and final.” It is one of those rare first lines that readers remember all their lives. Published forty years ago, a novel called The Gay Place captured a period in Texas that today may seem as archaic as the book’s title, but its power bridges the years and generations gone by. The novel built for its author, Billy Lee Brammer—also known as Bill or Billie Lee or William—a legend of tantalizing and unfulfilled promise. How could he write a book so ambitious when he was only 31, and then never publish another? The most famous opening in Texas literature begins with a towering overview of the Balcones Escarpment as it divides the nation’s cotton-farming South from the ranch-land West. But Billy Lee was after neither of those rich literary traditions. With nary a sharecropper or a horseman, The Gay Place was Texas’ first successful urban novel. It does not, however, explore gay and lesbian sexuality (though today it often winds up misplaced in that section of bookstores.) For centuries “gay” has suggested joy, brilliance, and mirth; the author found his gaiety in the boozy, incestuous lives of politicians, journalists, and camp followers in Austin in the fifties. The opening passage narrows on a pickup full of farmworkers rattling toward a rendezvous with a state legislator named Roy Sherwood who is sleeping off a drunk in his car:

    It is a pleasant city, clean and quiet, with wide rambling walks and elaborate public gardens and elegant old ...

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