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BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIR : Home Is Where a Man's Heart Is? Believe It : A FAMILY PLACE: A Man Returns to the Center of His Life by Charles Gaines ; Atlantic Monthly Press, $20, 195 pages

March 14, 1994|ALEX RAKSIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In public at least, embracing freedom and dissing family has been a favorite pose of male writers from Francis Bacon ("He that hath a wife and children hath given hostages to fortune") to Groucho Marx ("Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?").

As W. Somerset Maugham showed us in his 1919 novel "The Moon and Sixpence," however, the subtle truth is that most guys chase after freedom not because they are oblivious to responsibility, but because they are obsessed by it. The "policeman in their hearts," Maugham explained, won't for a second let them forget their duties and dependencies:

"Man's desire for the approval of his fellows is so strong, his dread of their censure so violent, that (he) has brought his enemy within his gates; and it keeps watch over him, vigilant always in the interests of its master to crush any half-formed desire to break away from the herd."

Intended as one man's paean to his marriage and children, "A Family Place" ultimately shows that men are still a long way from coming to terms with these conflicting urges.

Superficially, Charles Gaines' story is simple: He-Man Turns Family Man. In fact, early in this memoir, Gaines is almost a caricature of machismo: An ardent hunter, ice climber and scuba diver with a "hair-trigger contempt for . . . sensitive males," he makes his living as a sports journalist, writing books with such titles as "Pumping Iron" (written with Arnold Schwarzenegger), "Yours in Perfect Manhood" (a biography of Charles Atlas) and--I kid you not--"Staying Hard."

"I ordered steak and organ meats at restaurants when everyone else was eating pasta," Gaines writes, "and took to drinking my bourbon from a water glass without ice, just as my father had."

Realizing that the face in the mirror may well be his father's gives Gaines pause, as it has for many men raised by distant '50s and '60s dads. But not until the day he finds himself alone in a redwood phone booth on the edge of a sheep meadow in Tasmania does he truly awaken.

His wife is on the line, telling him, "Come home. Now." When he explains that he's busy fishing for barramundi, she coolly asks for a divorce.

As he flies home, Gaines poignantly flashes back on his joyful days as a father:

"Our life was the sweet warmth of a child on your lap while watching television, making cinnamon toast with Greta, taking Latham for his first canoe ride, taking all three of them out to dinner at Pizza Hut. . . . Seeing new emotions and thoughts cross over their faces like the shadows of clouds. . . . Nothing had prepared me for the riot of familial love and happiness Patricia and I harvested in those days, or for the exhilarating feeling we had of overwhelming completeness, of needing nothing other than each other and the kids to found the city of Rome if we wanted, or fly to the moon."

Like Fred Barthelme's protagonist Del Tribute, who finds in storms a kind of "rapture . . . a swoon of well-being and rightness," Gaines looks to Mother Nature for a force to revive his marriage.

He and his wife buy 160 acres in Nova Scotia. "With its clean glimpses of ocean everywhere, its cool, bracing air and straight ahead, cheerful people," it is, Gaines writes, one of the world's "last, best places." Along with his three kids, now in their 20s, Gaines builds a "family place" there and finally settles into "the peace of familiarity that makes sleep dreamless."

Or so, at least, goes the Cliffs Notes' version of Gaines' story. In truth, the man who embraces the peace of family and familiarity might only be Gaines' wishful self-caricature. Gaines' kids leave after several weeks to reclaim their very independent lives. And only a few pages after construction ends on his supposedly "solid, rooted place," Gaines, with a straight face, writes of building "a bigger house out on the cape," more cabins "for family and friends, and maybe even, someday, for use as a summer camp for underprivileged city kids."

*

Gaines' manic energy may be his way of dodging the "smaller and smaller steps" he anxiously sees his friends taking through middle age. It leads him to some pretty unrealistic goals, as in this quote from John Ruskin that begins "A Family Place":

"When we build, let us think that we build forever. . . . Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them."

It's grandiose, to be sure. But it's also a refreshing antidote to the cynicism of many of Gaines' contemporaries, whose sentiments are perhaps best expressed by the Talking Heads song, "We're on a Road to Nowhere/Come On Inside!"

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