Norman Mailer was 25 when “The Naked and the Dead,’’ his debut novel about World War II, came out. It made the best-seller list for 62 weeks and vaulted the young writer to fame. The Mailer persona — the blustering provocateur, outspoken anti-feminist, Pulitzer Prize winner, public intellectual, notorious philanderer (he had six wives, one of whom he stabbed at a party announcing his run for New York mayor) — is some blend of legend, invention, and truth. In Alex Gilvarry’s absorbing second novel, “Eastman Was Here,’’ we meet a Mailer-like character in 1973 New York, deep into middle age and railing against a gathering cloud of diminishment and disappointment.
Like Mailer, Alan Eastman wrote a Big, Important Book about the war as a young man, but his subsequent fiction has failed to live up to the promise of that first book. Somewhat disappointingly (at least to him), he is proving more successful as a journalist. As the story opens, Eastman, whose public pronouncements, particularly against women, have made him a controversial figure, has just been told by his second wife, Penny, that she’s leaving him.
In a misguided attempt to win her back and keep his family in tact, Eastman takes an assignment in Vietnam documenting the extraction of US troops, but not before he does some jealous, obsessive sleuthing on the man his wife might be sleeping with. It seems clear, however, that Eastman is driven less by an abiding love for Penny than by not wanting to be bested by a rival — yet another sign of his loosening grip on power and relevance. At a party full of publishing industry figures, he thinks of all the bad blood he’s created: “[H]e had either put down one of their books or asserted himself over them in public, to steal the spotlight or to turn the topic in his favor. It was merely about keeping hold of the reins. The reins kept him relevant.”
The second section of the novel takes us to Vietnam, where Eastman spends most of his time in his hotel, sweating, scheming, and once nearly killing himself in a gone-wrong attempt at auto-erotic asphyxiation. Gilvarry shows Eastman for the fool he is, and we’re meant to laugh at him for his desperation and lack of self-awareness. The whole trip turns out to be a ploy, a way to earn Penny’s pity, show her what she is giving up and regain the upper hand. “Within a book, life was molded, shaped into something that made sense,’’ he thinks. “He was not the author of his own life.”
Gilvarry, whose first novel “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant’’ deals with Guantanamo Bay, is a master of the secondary character — Eastman’s exchanges with newspapermen, bigwig editors, a cop buddy, are lively and sharp. While in Saigon, Eastman is taken by a thirty-something correspondent named Anne Channing, a savvy, brave, and intelligent woman who proves his better in all respects, a foil through which we see all that Eastman is not. Some of the chapters are written from her perspective, which gives us a welcome respite from Eastman’s deluded buffoonery.
But the chapters from Channing’s perspective feel token; one notices how few there are, and how welcome her perspective is. We realize how much time we’ve spent hearing from the voice of a fragile white man, satirized or not. Gilvarry gives us the sense that men like this don’t change much, and yet we’re drawn to Eastman, the way Channing is, “in a sad kind of way.” Ultimately he exhibits a sudden glimmer of humility, of generosity, of genuine insight into his own failings — and we also know it’s a matter of time until the chest-thumping bluster returns.
Gilvarry has given us a portrait of toxic masculinity — one that feels as if it both belongs to a certain time and is still familiar. His Eastman is a riveting, loathsome presence who demands to be loved and remembered. He is not likable, but human. There is much to admire about this book, but in the end, though, questions linger: Haven’t we had enough Eastmans (and men like him)? Did we need another? EASTMAN WAS HERE
By Alex Gilvarry
Viking, 368 pp., $27Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.