As a Texas teenager harboring thoughts about becoming a writer, Tracy Daugherty knew about Billy Lee Brammer.
"He became this mythic figure in Texas," Daugherty said of Brammer, a journalist who attracted the attention of then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and eventually joined Johnson's staff in Washington, D.C.
In Washington, Brammer wrote "The Gay Place," a well-regarded political novel inspired by Johnson, but the author paid a price for it: The book shattered his relationship with Johnson. Later, Brammer, with Texas friends like singer Janis Joplin, played a role in the burgeoning psychedelic scene in Austin and then San Francisco. But Brammer died too young, at age 48, from a methamphetamine overdose.
For younger writers like Daugherty, the Brammer story always was offered as a cautionary tale of a gifted artist who went astray. But the story, as befits Texas, was larger than life, and it intrigued Daugherty — but he figured that it would be hard to interest a publisher in such a Texas-centric story.
In 2012, though, Daugherty met Brammer's daughter Sidney, and she kept insisting that the Corvallis writer was just the person to write her father's story.
"I really resisted for a long time," Daugherty said this week in an interview in his home.
But, finally, he gave in. "This is too good a story to pass up," he said. "It is a great story."
The result is a new biography, "Leaving the Gay Place: Billy Lee Brammer and the Great Society," just published by the University of Texas Press. Daugherty will read from the book — his fourth biography of a 1960s-era writer — at an event next Tuesday night at Grass Roots Books and Music. (See the related story for details.)
It didn't take long to see that Brammer's story illuminated some of the same cultural and literary themes that emerge in some of Daugherty's other biographies, in which he examines the work and times of writers like Donald Bartheme, Joseph Heller and Joan Didion.
But where Didion, for example, wasn't particularly cooperative with Daugherty, Brammer's family was accommodating.
"The family was very open and very honest," he said. "They didn't try to hide any of the ugly parts of the story."
And the research gave Daugherty a chance to occasionally rub shoulders with Texas music and literary royalty. He recalls attending a party at the house of songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker that was filled with old friends of Brammer's. Daugherty turned on his tape recorder and let it run, but it was almost too much: "I couldn't possibly keep up with all that," he said. "I couldn't keep up with the 80-year-olds."
Daugherty said the book already is generating reaction. Some readers who were fans of Brammer's often-satirical journalism for publications like the Texas Observer are pleased to see the author return to the spotlight. Others are happy to see "The Gay Place," considered one of the best political novels of its day, getting long-overdue attention. "I'm hearing from those who believe that it's about time the novel got its due," Daugherty said.
Brammer wrote hundreds of pages of a possible sequel to "The Gay Place," but it never took off, for various reasons. Daugherty has one theory why it didn't click: Brammer killed off the character inspired by Johnson at the end of 'The Gay Place," and without that inspiration, the pages of the sequel just don't quite spark into life.
Brammer lived in a time, like today, that was marked by conflict and division, but Daugherty thinks those kinds of labels oversimplify the story: "It was a very fluid time of experimentation, socially and culturally and politically." And even though his story takes a decidedly dark turn, Brammer personifies that type of experimentation.
"Even though those times are very different, I am a believer that history does help us in the present," he said. ... "The culture wares of that period are the very same ones that we are debating now. These things are not new."