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BOOKS Return Engagements

Brammer reappearing, Updike relocating, Olsen remonstrating
By Jo Brans |

When I first read Bill Brammer’s The Gay Place, upon its publication in 1961, I thought its characters were
grotesques, a bunch of drunk, funky no-goods who put me in mind of the characters in Nathanael West’s Miss
Privately, I considered them Austin exotica. People in Dallas and Houston simply didn’t drink,
sleep around, and mess up as profligately. Everybody knew the Gay Place was Austin and Brammer’s Governor Arthur
Fenstemaker was Lyndon Johnson, for whom Bram-mer had worked. The great fun was to figure out everybody else: Who
was Ronnie Dugger or Willie Morris? Bob Eck-hardt? Morris’s gutsy and beautiful wife, Celia, later to be Mrs.
Eckhardt? The book got high critical praise in the national press, but for many of us in Texas it was a parlor game.
We forgot about it, and since Brammer didn’t publish another one, for the most part we forgot about him.

Now Texas Monthly has issued a new edition of The Cay Place (Texas Monthly Press, $8.95), and reading
the book again after almost two decades I’m startled to see how it has changed. Farther away from the Fifties, the
grotesque characters now seem ordinary, striving, credible people, like your friends and mine, and their former
profligacy now seems mostly restraint, with an occasional understandable bash. The Gay Place of the title obviously
refers not to Austin, the “flea circus” of the book, but to some dream city where “beauty and grace” reside. I find
I could hardly care less who any character “really was.” What surprises and delights me is how wonderfully funny
The Gay Place is.

One doesn’t associate comedy with Bill Brammer. Over the past ten years, Bram-mer was Texas’s leading writer-martyr,
who held well before his death last year at the age of 48, the black-bordered winning ticket in our Tragic Figure
sweepstakes. I’m told that in the University of Iowa’s creative writing program, a senior seminar in Writers’ Block
is offered; Brammer could have taught it expertly. For years he had a writers’ block so total, incomprehensible, and
fateful that it sent him off on an endless trail of drugs, till he was reportedly using everything from crystal
methedrine to his dog Suzy’s epilepsy medicine.

But The Gay Place is funny. There’s the broadly exaggerated old Fenstemaker, almost as improbable as LBJ
showing his appendectomy scar to newsmen. There’s wry Willie England, newspaper editor and publisher, who says of
his paper, “It’s like a prayer meeting. . . . I’m worn out from editing those awful ambivalent essays the faculty
members send me. About the human situation and all. . . Proofs. And corrected proofs. And corrections of corrected
proofs. We’ve got lousy printers, but they’re sincere liberals.”

And there are the throwaways: ” ’I was Phi Beta Kappa,’ the girl said. . . ’But an absolute cultural vacuum. I
really don’t know anything. All I do is memorize. . . . You want something from memory?. . .See? That’s
Yeats.’ “

The present edition of The Cay Place tends toward sanc-tification, with a foreword by Texas Monthly’s
editor, William Broyles, and a fine introduction by Al Reinert. Both Broyles and Reinert make the point that
Brammer’s habit of thinking of himself as “the next Fitzgerald” caused his block, but they both intimate that, yes,
he really was the next Fitzgerald-just as they both cite David Halberstam and Gore Vidal on Brammer’s excellence.
All of which gets a little sickening.

Brammer was not great Scott, but a man who, before he succumbed to fear, incompetence, or neurosis, wrote one finely
observed, witty, living book. Isn’t that enough?

I love Tillie Olsen. I have loved her fiction since the day I put away my iron, folded up the ironing board, and
picked up her short story which began, “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth
with the iron.” As my students say, I could relate to that. Tillie and I come from an ironing generation, though she
is older, worked harder, had more children. The iron was our rock of Sisyphus. We pushed it over men’s starched
white cotton shirts, fragile baby dresses, children’s sunsuits, and ruffled rompers. It took time but not mind.

Whoever hasn’t read her novella about a marriage, Tell Me a Riddle, should. I’ve read this story of an old
Bolshevik couple at least half-a-dozen times, and am always overwhelmed by it. But I hate her new book, Silences
(Delacorte Press, $10.95). It is angry non-fiction, a hodgepodge of autobiography, pseudo-research, and
sentimental moralizing. The tone that always informs Olsen’s fiction-the pity for an individual trapped in his (or
more likely, her) circumstances-here becomes a battle cry.

Against whom does Olsen take up arms? She claims that the creative voice is too often stilled by the repressions of
environment, and she shouts “J’accuse” on behalf of writers as various as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman,
Virginia Woolf, and Franz Kafka. But who is to blame for these silences? Large families, no family, dead mothers,
living mothers, routine jobs, no job, society, or the lack of it? Because the villain is everywhere, he is nowhere.
Silences is a disgrace to Tillie Olsen. Better she should be silent.

John Updike has a genius for the American language and a keen eye for the American scene, but often he hasn’t known
what to do with either. He has explored family relationships in Rabbit, Run and The Centaur, charted
the pleasures of the post-Pill paradise in Couples, turned theological in A Month of Sundays and
romantic in Marry Me. To the extent that Updike’s observations are uncannily accurate, they distract us from
his judgments, or lead him to make none. Because Updike knows that “Lavender Blue” was on a Pennsylvania jukebox in
1951 and even remembers all the words, we think it matters. The landscape lights up with the author’s glittering
recollections. Updike favors everything he remembers, and he remembers everything.

In The Coup (Knopf, $8.95), Updike forces his imagination into another skin. His hero-narrator is
African-Colonel Hakim Felix Ellellou, the dictator of Kush, a drought-ridden land with a six-percent literacy rate,
an average life expectancy of 37 years, and a per capita GNP of $79. Updike has drawn Kush from his year as a
Fulbright Lecturer in Africa, during a great drought; his Colonel Ellellou chronicles it lovingly in all its squalor
and courage.

Ellellou, to put it mildly, doesn’t love America. America appears in The Coup in a secondary role, filtered
through Ellellou’s Marxist Islamic bias and the violent prejudice formed during his seedy life as a University of
Wisconsin undergraduate. The things that Updike tends to be sentimental about, Ellellou deplores: breakfast cereals
that make noise, bossy American girls (though he marries one), “boyishly gaunt American intellectual men,” American
foreign aid, white racists, and American blacks. If Kush is dying of famine, America is dying of malnutrition. When
Ellellou leaves Wisconsin, he can take with him nothing but Candy, his blond American wife, who in Africa wastes her
sweetness on the desert air. And U.S. aid to Kush comes in the empty calories of Kix and pop.

In such insubstantial confections, however, America floods the memory even of Ellellou, who on the verge of dying
from thirst records:

… my thoughts would swim through rivers of lemonade rickeys, lime phosphates that dripped their fizzing overflow
into the chrome grate below the taps, Coca-Cola brewed out of syrup upon chips of ice, 7-Ups paler than water
itself, and that mysterious dark challenger to the imperial Coke, the swarthy, enigmatic Pepsi, with whom 1 felt an
underdog’s empathy. Milkshakes were in those days of plenty so lavishly prepared that the counter-boy, in-gloriously
dubbed the “soda jerk,” served them in two containers, one of cloudy, hefty glass and the other of the chill
futuristic metal in which the sudsy marvel had been churned. These “soda jerks,” I came to understand, were
recruited from the adolescent ranks of the “townies”. . .

One of whom might have been a youthful John Updike.

In this novel America itself becomes agiant soda fountain, dispensing froth nostalgically recollected by Updike,
harshlyrejected for the Third World by Ellellou.Through this bifocal vision, Updike seesmore clearly than he ever

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