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The pugnacious protagonist in the American writer’s sophomore work attempts to regain family and fame by taking a risky reporting assignment in Vietnam.
“Maileresque” may not be a word recognized by Merriam-Webster’s, but the writer it references makes for an ideal candidate, Norman Mailer, that is—formerly America’s most titanic man of letters. But to attribute something as “Maileresque” would be to acknowledge what it was that has caused him and his work to go out of fashion: an intelligent and raucous style of prose that, were it not coated by full-throttle pompousness and misogyny, would be among the most enlivened and thrilling writing, well, ever. Neither has Mailer’s reputation off the page as a chauvinistic, wife-stabbing, pundit punching asshole, helped his uncertain status within the American literary canon. Two obituary headlines penned after his death say it all: “Towering Writer With Matching Ego, Dies at 84” (The New York Times) and “Farewell to Norman Mailer, a Sexist, Homophobic Reactionary” (The Guardian). It’s hard to imagine such a male writer, no matter his talents, having a career today.
Eastman Was Here, the engrossing second novel by the American writer Alex Gilvarry (Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant), is an unapologetic caricature of the Maileresque novel and the man himself. Set in 1973, an era when the Vietnam War was on the wane and the Watergate scandal bubbled, Eastman Was Here is anything but nostalgic for the early 70s. The titular protagonist is Alan Eastman, a Mailer-inspired antihero, who is double-fisting crises. Like Mailer, Eastman is a writer of national repute, an unruly public intellectual, and a rambunctious jerk. But unlike Mailer, who was having a far better time in 1973, Eastman’s career and personal life are on a downward slope; we are introduced to him as a pathetic creature, a defeated king alone in his home, which until four days previously had been occupied by his second wife, Penny, and their two young boys. She has left him there to stew in dejection: “And who will be the recipient of her sex now,” is the first thought that races through his head, “who will have my Penny in his arms.” The grief isn’t just misplaced, rather Eastman, as we come to know him, genuinely doesn’t know what to do with it.
He is briefly shaken out of his anguish by a phone call from a former classmate, once the literary editor of the college paper and now an editor for the International Herald, Baxter Broadwater. Time has healed no wounds between them, and over a volley of “fuck yous” and the odd “up yours,” mostly at Eastman’s instigation over a rejected poem, Broadwater offers his old frenemy a scoop—fly over to Saigon and provide the definitive reflective piece on the Vietnam War. But as Broadwater points out, the offer isn’t independent of pity. It’s a solution to his other crisis, a career that has slipped away:
“Fact of the matter is a washed-up writer such as yourself, who may still have a few thousand words left in him, sending dispatches from Saigon and Hanoi is something that [the editor-in-chief] wants to print, and that, we can only hope, people want to read. Provided they give a shit.”
And provided readers do too. To create a jerk is one thing, to redeem one is another, but Gilvarry is more concerned with the gray space between. Eastman, we learn, is a complex figure whose heart can be in the right place even when his foot is not. His quick temper bungles his many attempts to reconcile with Penny, even when she is receptive to the idea. And like a clock marking the hour, Eastman’s own vulnerability can trigger obnoxiousness. In one ridiculous scene in a used bookstore, he becomes enraged after discovering a work by his rival Norman Heimish featured in the glass display, and a copy of The American War, his once-lauded debut, shelved in the outdoor discount cart. And though he knows many people, Eastman doesn’t seem to have many actual friends (recall that he had grieved for four days without human contact). Eastman reserves unprompted sweetness only for his children, and because he is acerbic to everyone else, people have learned to stay clear of him. And for due cause: at a dinner party hosted by his editor and his wife, with whom Eastman’s been carrying on a long-term affair, the guests are understandably discomfited by his presence:
“There was bad blood between him and almost everyone in that room of publishers and publishing allies. At some point, he had either put down one of their books or asserted himself over them in public, to steal the spotlight or turn the topic in his favor. It was merely about keeping hold of the reins. The reins kept him relevant.”
While Eastman is a rather smearing impression of Mailer, it’s Gilvarry punchy prose, fashioned after the writer’s own trademarks, that give the book a certain liveliness atypically found in contemporary literature. The unfiltered dialogue alone is sparky enough to ignite a fire. Then there’s Gilvarry’s narration, which is as swaggery as Eastman is boisterous. But ugly as Eastman is, Gilvarry narrates his actions like a boxing coach giving advice to a prize fighter: “He caught a reflection of himself in the window of the peep show, his bulb of gray hair, his face a mug shot of his former self on a very drunk evening. Was he too old? Nonsense!”
The book’s second section is set almost entirely in Saigon, which gives the reader a momentary break from Eastman’s bumptious antics. His ego leaves a vacuum, however, and the pacing and punch of the book are dialed down as Gilvarry works to bring into the picture a more intriguing character, Anne Channing. As the Herald’s primary Saigon reporter, Channing has been collecting the kind of material Eastman is hankering for. After Eastman observes her rushing to the scene of a military shoot-out, he sends her a note praising her bravery—“you’re the real deal,”—and proposes that she be the subject of his next book. She has read Eastman’s work, and though she admires it, she does not genuflect to his ego or his patronizing advances to help her career. In other words, Channing doesn’t need him. After a near death experience and a visit from his mistress, Eastman finishes his dispatches and returns home.
Though Eastman Was Here crackles throughout with acuity and wit, its emotional clarity is channeled most in the book’s final act, where Eastman only partially succeeds in rebuilding his family. He will go on, made clairvoyant in defeat: “The power of empathy. This is what his writing was missing. Not humanity, but humanity’s authenticity.” It’s a redemption never sought by Mailer, but at least Eastman’s humility, as Gilvarry shows us, is a good first step toward it.
EASTMAN WAS HERE
by Alex Gilvarry
Viking | 368 pp. | $27.00