Author: Charles Gaines
Price: Out of print: purchase used
Charles Gaines is a professional, hardworking writer with about 19 books, several movie scripts and 300 magazine articles to his credit and although he lives north of Birmingham half the year-the other half in Nova Scotia—he is not seen much around Alabama literary world.
That all changed in March. On the strength of his powerful memoir “A Family Place,” Gaines received the Truman Capote Prize in Monroeville and was, the next week, inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame for that book, his groundbreaking study of the world of body building, “Pumping Iron,” and especially his 1972 debut novel, “Stay Hungry.”
Occasionally in this space I take a look at important Alabama novels of the past. I’ve covered “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Keepers of the House,” and recently “Fancy Strut.”
Why not take another look at “Stay Hungry”? How does it hold up? Is it as I remembered it? Does the movie, starring Jeff Bridges, Sally Field and of course the presence on the screen of a huge, nearly unbelievable, much younger Arnold Schwarzenegger dominate our memory, rather than the novel itself?
The novel has been given credit for introducing America to the world of body building—an obscure sport, which most assumed took place in dirty, sweaty gyms and Y’s, with poorly attended contests for Mr. Something.
Arnold and the other “builders” on the big screen were—and I use the term mindfully—awesome. After that movie, folks all over the country took up weightlifting and body building, in the same way as America embraced boxing for a spell after “Rocky.”
“Stay Hungry,” set in the late ’60s, ranges beyond body building. There is a long wonderful sequence at a rodeo in Brewton during which the body builders are joined by perhaps Alabama’s first hippies, complete with peyote.
Our hero, Craig Blake, a rich young man, is aimless. He fishes, hunts, plays golf and tennis and avoids running the real estate corporation he has inherited. Blake stumbles into Thor Erikson’s Olympic Gym one evening, and into the world of the builders, chief of whom is Joe Santos, presently Mr. Alabama and destined to be Mr. Anything He Wants.
A magnificent fictional creation, Santos is fully alive and larger than life, mythical. Some of the men think, vaguely, that Santos approaches the supernatural: a saint. Part Native American, he fought in Korea, is a champion whitewater canoer and skier, an excellent country singer, designer of jewelry—you name it.
Most especially, though, Santos’s body, his muscles, are particularly receptive to sculpting. Through sets of specific exercises, muscle groups can be enlarged, enhanced and separated.
Blake is entranced by Santos but falls dead in love with gym employee Mary Tate Farnsworth, a champion water skier from Opp, Alabama.
This romance—between this scion of barely fictional Woodstream, Alabama and the small-town girl—is the socio/psychological heart of the book. Their powerful animal attraction for one another is thoroughly narrated but more important here is Gaines’s examination of class and background in Alabama.
Despite having always looked down on Birmingham from his magnificent mansion on the ridge of the mountain, Blake realizes “he didn’t have any idea what went on down there.” The 12 miles might as well have been 1200. His buddy Foss tells him he is not, as he thinks of himself, an open-minded adventurer having “experiences.” Foss invokes Turgenev: says Blake is “putting on a peasant’s blouse.” That is, Brake is slumming. But, although Blake is ultra-privileged, he is not spoiled, exactly. He is a fish out of water but not unhappy among downtown gym rats. He comes to admire their lifestyle and devotion to their sport while still having some reservations about their lack of education and lack of couth in general.
Nevertheless, unwisely, Blake brings Santos and Mary Tate to a big do at the Woodstream Country Club. The result is a social, and personal, catastrophe. The scene has a satiric dimension, but is more tragic than amusing, reminiscent of the social gulfs and disappointments in Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” One might say everyone suffers, is diminished, and the novel ends with the phrase “he was lost.”
“Stay Hungry” is as powerful, elegant, and timely now as ever. Have a look.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.