“What would Norman Mailer do?” “How would Saul Bellow write this bit?” “I’m almost as funny as Philip Roth!” These are thoughts that, one suspects, certain male writers of fiction have had in the past. Perhaps it still goes on: similar thoughts about Alan Bennett, say, or even Martin Amis — just not as sexy. Eastman Was Here, the second novel by Staten Island-born Alex Gilvarry, features a hot-headed, fading writer in his 50s in ’70s-era New York. Eastman rages at the dying of his literary light, and everything he does seems to be at once intense and half-hearted. He finds himself raising his hand for a writing assignment in war-torn Vietnam, mainly to try to win back his wife, Penny, who has left him and taken their children with her.
Alan Eastman belongs firmly to the chest-thumping, self-aggrandizing, tree-swinging school of male author, and it sees him ending up in many tangles of thorns that other people seem to avoid. Gilvarry is a scholar, of sorts, of Norman Mailer. He went to the Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown where he was, fairly reluctantly, introduced properly to Mailer’s work. Like many things in life, it’s not all black and white, and Gilvarry found elements of Mailer’s writing pleasing and commendable, particularly Armies of The Night, where a humility “not always present in his other work” is on display.
With Eastman, too, it’s all a bit complicated. Gilvarry has that writers’ sleight-of-hand knack that makes you not dislike Eastman straight away, and side with him, even, when the going gets tough (although the toughness is usually of Eastman’s own making.) Both Alan and his wife have had affairs, Alan with a close associate’s wife, the skating on thin ice element of this undoubtedly appealing to Eastman. Hearteningly Eastman, given time, distance, and spectacular distraction in Vietnam ends up growing up a bit. Perhaps predictably, he meets a female war reporter there and events, especially with those that involve her, help to streamline his sense of what might turn out to be lastingly important.
There’s a ghostly suggestion of Philip Roth’s writing voice in Portnoy’s Complaint in this novel; a relatively calm voice, this time in the third person, documenting the madness. It’s almost a supernatural talent in Gilvarry. He’s good enough and self-assured enough to use the word “cunt” fairly freely in sexual scenes, something that can hit a wrong note in a less confident and talented author, and it’s perhaps the closest Gilvarry gets to his literary anti-heroes.
Gilvarry has described the book as “feminist”. The female characters are indeed strong and strongly-written, and just generally better at life than Eastman if only because they have lives outside of ambition, sex, and manipulation. It’s funny, too, with lots of the laughs coming from the side alleys of the prose. When a hotel worker bungles Eastman’s name and forever calls him “Easyman“, there’s a nice, streamlined joke in the fact that there’s nothing, just nothing, easy about Alan. At the beginning of the book, where a writhing Eastman manages to make a telephone fall on his head, it’s a portent of things of come, but also funny in itself.
Eastman Was Here – a statement that refers to the lot of ground that Eastman covers – is a backward-looking but fitting book for our times. There’s no neat ending, however, which would have been a bit on the pyrrhic side for both Alan and Penny. The book is an interesting exploration of what can happen when certain strands of masculinity get mixed in with a stew of relationships, writing, and feelings: each element, of course, reacting with the others — sex and sense sometimes not the best bedfellows. As Alex Gilvarry grows older his novels will, presumably, carry even more crackle and wisdom. Something to look forward to.