Book Review: Eastman Was Here by Alex Gilvarry

An ambitious new novel set in the literary world of 1970s New York, following a washed-up writer in an errant quest to pick up the pieces of his life. [Pub. Viking. 368 pp.]

Alan Eastman is a trainwreck.

It’s 1973, and the biggest years of his writing career are decades behind him, his wife has left him, and nothing seems to be going right.

When Eastman is invited to cover the tail end of the Vietnam War as a foreign correspondent, he gets the brilliant idea of frightening his wife into returning to him—by telling her that he’s accepting the assignment. Except the entire literary world finds out, and soon he finds himself cornered into following through and flying to Vietnam.

But Eastman’s dreams of valor and cutting-edge journalism on the frontlines never materialize. Faced with the reality of his growing insignificance, both in his career and his own family, he bumbles from one misstep to another. And soon he finds that no matter how far he goes, he can’t escape the problems he tried to leave behind.

Eastman Was Here is a comedy of errors, all by Eastman’s own hand

Alan Eastman is a lot of things: Brash. Brilliant. Once upon a time, boyishly good-looking. But he’s also pompous, self-important, and impotent—the portrait of a man emasculated by others’ success. Within the first paragraph, we know Eastman is going to grate on our nerves—and he does. The novel in a nutshell, in the author’s own words: “He needed things to go his way. When they didn’t he was miserable.”

The first half of Eastman Was Here takes place in New York, where we deal with the physical and emotional fallout from his wife’s departure. But while the first part gives a good glimpse of the time period, it becomes clear that Vietnam, where we spend the latter half of the novel, is a mere backdrop for his thoughts and insecurities.

Alan Eastman is a lot of things: Brash. Brilliant. Once upon a time, boyishly good-looking. But he’s also pompous, self-important, and impotent—the portrait of a man emasculated by others’ success

Eastman is a pitiable figure, despite how highly he thinks of himself. But the novel shines when we see Eastman’s virtues and vices illuminated against others’—from his estranged family to his on-and-off mistress, from his literary rival to an ambitious photojournalist stationed in Saigon who once admired him and his work—and it’s hard to suppress both an eyeroll and a smile when we see how the people around him spar with him, a man trapped in the glory of his past.

The author knows the monster he’s created

Alex Gilvarry is unsparing in his portrayal of Eastman. At first it seems like he indulges Eastman’s whims; after all, Eastman enjoys the stature of being a writer more than he actually writes, and it shows.

But as the book progresses, we see that Gilvarry is dryly, wryly aware of Eastman’s failings: his highly inflated sense of self, as well as his sexism and misogyny, despite falling in love with women with “some big, commanding presence, an outward destiny, that made him feel the need to attach himself.”

At first it seems like [Gilvarry] indulges Eastman’s whims. But as the book progresses, we see that [he] is dryly, wryly aware of Eastman’s failings

Still, Gilvarry manages to sneak in moments that reveal Eastman’s humanity, as well as beautiful prose amidst egocentric ramblings. In fact, I found myself thinking about the last few chapters long after I put the book down.

A novel you may not want to read, but that you may need to read

Eastman Was Here isn’t a book I would normally pick up. I steer clear of books revolving around middle-aged white men who think that the world revolves around them, and true enough, I found Eastman deeply unlikable, and the first half of the book, insufferable.

But once Eastman reaches Saigon, you start seeing a clearer picture of him and his place in the world. Turning pages becomes easier. And you begin to appreciate Gilvarry’s skill as a writer, and how he makes his cast of characters come alive.

Eastman Was Here is about many things, but most of all, the destructive nature of insecurity and what it means to have your wishes come true

Eastman Was Here is about many things, but most of all, the destructive nature of insecurity and what it means to have your wishes come true. And considering the world we live in today, I love that we see it all clearly because of one middle-aged man trying to be part of the world when he can’t see beyond his own. ♦

Thoughts from the future

Rereading this review five years after I first wrote it put the biggest smile on my face because, as fair as I tried to be, it was clear that I was tremendously unimpressed by the protagonist Alan Eastman. I had a very real distaste for his machismo and the way that he looked at the world; in the very first page I was treated to a paragraph that read,

Four nights ago, Alan Eastman, beaten husband, lover, and devout father of three, one from a previous marriage, was informed by his current wife of ten years, Penny, that he had fallen out of love with her (news to him) and that he was no longer the proud bearer of her love, nor would he be the recipient of her sex. There would be no more waving around of his proud, uncircumcised flag, humping in every corner of the house, deep in the throes of marriage, or love (the two often fell out of sync).

And who would be the recipient of her sex now? Eastman wondered. Who will have my Penny in his arms? […]

Alex Gilvarry, Eastman Was Here

Okay, on second thought, it’s madly hilarious, too.

But now I know that Eastman Was Here was intended to be a roman à clef based on the infamous, wildly divisive author Norman Mailer (1923–2007, right), whose obituary in The Guardian described him as “a sexist, homophobic reactionary.” Journalist Joan Smith quipped, “He hated authority, homosexuality, women and almost certainly himself.” That’s cultural context that could have enriched my reading experience in August 2017. Instead, I wondered why Gilvarry was torturing me with a protagonist I hated with every ounce of my being.

And two months later in October 2017, the #MeToo movement took over the world.

Looking back, I think part of the reason I felt so strongly about Eastman Was Here was that Gilvarry captured the period and his character’s narcissistic, distinctly New Yorker bluster so well. The design team at Viking also did an excellent job at making the novel feel like it was published in the sixties, from the cover to the font!

But since first reading the book, I’ve visited Ho Chi Minh, learned about the Vietnam War from a non-American perspective, and even had drinks at Caravelle, one of the hotels frequented by war correspondents like Eastman—and now I think I would enjoy a reread. In fact, I have the book in front of me right now, and I’m grinning down at page 21.

Maybe Eastman does deserve another chance. The novel, of course, not the man. ♦

Thank you to Fully Booked and Penguin Random House for the ARC! This review was originally posted on Fully Booked Online in August 2017. Check out Fully Booked on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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