Eastman Was Here
In a now-famous 1997 smack down, David Foster Wallace took a generation of great American novelists—Updike, Mailer, Roth—to task. Two decades ago these “great male narcissists” were “in their senescence,” and, Wallace added, “the prospect of their own deaths appears backlit by the approaching millennium and on-line predictions of the death of the novel as we know it. When a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him.”
The essay was a passing of the torch. The celebrated American novelists who followed—Chabon, Morrison, Diaz, Egan—were decidedly less self-centered, and more experimental when it came to diverse perspectives and points-of-view. In toppling the (to paraphrase Wallace) “phallocracy,” however, an unsettling question arises: Are the late, great novelists of the 20th century essentially irredeemable to 21st century practitioners of the craft? Alex Gilvarry takes up this difficult question (among many others) in his ambitious second novel Eastman Was Here.
Gilvarry’s new book is a departure, in some ways, from his lauded 2012 debut From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, which updated the classic New York immigrant saga for the post-9/11 era. Eastman Was Here, however, takes us all the way back to the early 1970s, the heyday of the blustery GMNs, personified here by Alan Eastman—famous for his bestsellers, as well as his TV appearances, pronouncements on feminism, and hack movie work in 1950s Hollywood, when he was “too far into fame, pussy, marijuana, Seconal, and bourbon.”
But if Eastman is a sometimes-ridiculous figure, Gilvarry is also not afraid to ease up on the satirical reins, making sure the reader never loses the plot or characters in a fog of gags and irony. Readers inclined to be dismissive of Eastman’s bombastic antics will love that Gilvarry punctures pretentious myths about heroic artists. However, those who see these larger-than-life literary heroes as something more than cartoonish figures will appreciate Eastman’s lapses into vulnerability, even humility. Early on, we find Eastman “laid out like a goddamn cripple on the floor.” And as age is catching up with our hero, his wife wants a divorce. The times they are a’changin’.
Eastman’s name still has some cache, however, and so the New York Herald rings him up to cover America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. (It is, apparently, twilight time for geo-political as well as literary superpowers.) Eastman sees the assignment as an opportunity for cash, a new book, a final shot at relevance. At a dinner party, Eastman stands before the crowd and declaims: “I have an announcement of great historical consequence... I will be reporting front-page dispatches from Saigon, Da Nang, Nha Trang, maybe even Hanoi. Straight from the Lion’s Den. [...] They have agreed to send me into what is still very dangerous ground. I, Alan Eastman, will walk that ground.” Talk about an advertisement for himself!
Here, we might imagine Will Ferrell portraying Eastman in full Ron Burgundy mode. At other times, though, Eastman is actually more reflective. “The need to enlight- en the world with his Eastmanisms was exhausting and erroneous,” he thinks. “Where did this habit of enforcing his ideas come from? And when did he stop believing that he could be mistaken?” Once in Vietnam, Eastman mingles with generals and journalists, among them a younger (female) scribe named Channing. Eastman tries to pick her brain, steal her sources, seduce her—and Channing nearly obliges. After hearing Channing’s own literary ambitions, Eastman opines: “As a woman [...] you’re more in touch with your emotion. Something men lack. That’s where your book can be major. Where others are writing about power and the struggle for power [...] you can concentrate on the power of the people, their thoughts, their feelings, who they are. Woman is our child bearer, our seductress, our priestess, the mother who cares for us, gives us life. If you can match these instincts with prose that’s not too sentimental, or too feminine, you may just have something.” Male chauvinistic praise, indeed.
The final third of the book chronicles Eastman’s at times clumsy, occasionally touching, efforts to reconcile things with his family, and includes a subtly hilarious sit-down with the man who may or may not be sleeping with Eastman’s wife.
Ultimately, Eastman Was Here crackles with vibrant period detail, and raises powerful yet humorous questions about the role of the author in the larger worlds of culture and entertainment. In an age when satire is being pushed to its most strident limits, Gilvarry operates in a mode that is subtle, perhaps even too gentle.
Because as readers are pondering what, precisely, we should make of relics such as Eastman, they will likely take their eyes off of Channing, who ends up stealing the show—which may be Gilvarry’s most important point of all. Some artists can’t stop talking about their art. Others let the work speak for itself.