The biographer of Joan Didion, Joseph Heller, and Donald Barthelme sets his sights on a lesser-known literary figure who spiraled tragically downward after the publication of his acclaimed 1961 Texas political novel, The Gay Place, based on his time working for Senator Lyndon B. Johnson.
Daugherty casts a fresh and insightful eye on Billy Lee as well as the politics and culture of America from the early 1950s until Brammer’s death at age 48 in 1978 ... Some of the best sections of Leaving the Gay Place concern how Brammer’s interactions with Johnson helped shape The Gay Place ... Daugherty uses snippets of Brammer’s unpublished prose, much of it brilliant, in his book ... Daugherty recounts Brammer’s saga and the times in which he lived in compelling fashion, which makes Leaving the Gay Place one of this year’s best nonfiction books about Texas.
Mr. Daugherty paints a persuasive picture of a young man as an ambitious novelist, feeling the frustration, in draft after draft, of trying to get a book exactly right ... Mr. Daugherty’s subtitle—'Billy Lee Brammer and the Great Society'—promises a wider subject, but the book sometimes wobbles when Mr. Daugherty approaches the currents of the time. With his focus on Johnson, he misjudges Kennedy ... Fortunately, Mr. Daugherty stays mostly with Billy Lee and his seemingly foreordained downfall.
In Daugherty’s hyper-detailed profile, Brammer always led the Austin subculture’s transformation, from the liberals yakking under the oaks at Scholz’s to the crossroads of psychedelia to the City of the Cosmic Cowboy, a brand that still informs how the city sees (and sells) itself today. Bittersweet is a nice word for it. Tragedy is perhaps closer to the truth ... The story rolls along with some Brammerian lyricism, lending the book an intermittent sense of painterly detail. Brammer, who mangles words into perfectly imperfect, phonetic vernacular, is a good subject in this regard, and Daugherty is a worthy storyteller ... For fans of Texas writers, there’s plenty to choose from ... Despite a few hiccups in pacing, including a detailed and mostly required meditation on the Kennedy assassination, Daughtery has done yeoman’s work in compiling interviews with Brammer’s family and friends, whose strong voices lend credence and color to a deeply loving profile ... The themes of modernity, of fractured politics and fights both within and between ideological groups, certainly feel relevant. What’s more, this portrait of the artist as a dying man, forever plagued by sugar-rotted teeth and indecision, speaks to the paralyzing fears that often accompany periods of sudden change. Most of all, Brammer’s is the tale of a changing nation.