BOOKS

The last best place

JOHN DeMONT April 4 1994
BOOKS

The last best place

JOHN DeMONT April 4 1994

The last best place

BOOKS

JOHN DeMONT

When Charles Gaines walks into a room, his stride is as measured and deliberate as his Alabama drawl. Two years ago, he had both hips replaced—a sure sign that two decades of chasing fame, money and adventure had finally caught up with him. Even if he could still run, Gaines says that he has lost the urge. “Life is always serving up these wonderful symbols,” he explained over breakfast recently in a Halifax restaurant. “If running your hips into oblivion at age 50 isn’t something telling you that your life has gotten out of control, I don’t know what is.” The irony is obvious— especially to a man who has spent his life celebrating the physical world. But if Gaines lacks bitterness it is because his injury

couple had found their paradise as newlyweds and young parents living in a humble cottage in Ireland in the 1960s. When their marriage almost collapsed in 1988—the headlong pursuit of fame and fortune had left them estranged—they sought a place to heal

A FAMILY PLACE

By Charles Gaines

(Random House of Canada, 195 pages, $25)

helped him find something far more important. His moving, lyrical memoir, A Family Place, tells how he set out to build a cabin on a remote chunk of Nova Scotia coastline and in the process discovered the rarest of things: a second chance.

Gaines and his artist wife, Patricia, arrived in East Tracadie, N.S., with a simple dream: to build a remote cabin far from the art and film worlds of New York City and Los Angeles. During the 1970s and 1980s, Gaines ^ had forged a success-§ ful career as a writer, § screenwriter, sportsman and businessman. (His first novel, Stay Hungry, was made into a 1976 movie with Jeff Bridges and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his nonfiction Pumping Iron was a best-seller.) But the Nova Scotia project was no mere getaway from the fast lane. He wanted to regain the satisfactions of a close-knit family. The

Building a cabin gave a family a second chance

their wounds, and, Gaines writes, take on something “risky, complicated, big, and all ours to screw up or make work.”

A Family Place is both poignant and profoundly hopeful. It is set in the summer of 1991, when Charles, Patricia and their grown children Greta, Latham and Shelby, began to build a cabin with their own hands and “isolate ourselves from everything but the healing joy of family closeness.” As personal as the story is, Gaines feels its themes are universal, and that it speaks to a modem malady. “The book strikes a chord with a lot of professionally driven North American men my age who had gone through the 1980s and wound up losing touch with everything that was really important to them,” he says.

The 1970s and 1980s were certainly wild years for Gaines. He and his family had returned to the United States from Ireland in the late-1960s. With the 1972 publication of Stay Hungry, Gaines’s “quiet, measured and considered life” took on a frantic quality. “It was a classic ‘dumb-country-boy-goes-Hollywood syndrome,’ ” recalls the tall, ruggedly built writer. Before long, the family man found himself snorting cocaine at poolside with Hollywood starlets.

When a second novel, Dangler, failed critically and commercially in 1985, he returned to the hunting and fishing that he learned to love from his father in Birmingham, Ala. Gaines joined the U.S. fly-fishing team, started an adventure travel company and founded the National Survival Game, in which play-acting combatants shoot at each other with paint pellets. But while he roved the globe, things at home began to shift and falter. When Patricia, who had become a virtual stranger to her absent husband, asked for a divorce, Gaines saw that he could lose everything he valued.

Six years later, the old Hemingwayesque Gaines is hardly recognizable. True, he still travels the world hunting, fishing and writing about it for magazines. But Patricia now goes along on most trips. And he has turned away from the macho, driven world he inhabited towards Robert Bly, Sam Keen and the other gurus of the so-called men’s movement. Gaines, who is at work on another novel, remains unfazed by book reviewers and others who accuse him of betraying the very tenets and values he once embodied. “I spent the earlier half of my career being categorized as a macho swine,” he says. “There’s a certain elegance to spending the latter half of it being categorized as exactly the opposite.”

These days, the only label he really welcomes is family man. He and Patricia intend now to spend their winters in the American south and the rest of the year in East Tracadie, where they are adding buildings to house their children and grandchildren. In Nova Scotia, Gaines has found a family place where he can at last learn to walk again.

JOHN DeMONT