The novelist Alex Gilvarry was born in 1981 (young enough that the National Book Foundation honored him as one of their “5 under 35” writers in 2014), but he grew up in love with the 1970s. “I gravitated toward this era in film, in literature,” he said. “You always idolize the period before you were born a little more than your own time.”
For Gilvarry, that fascination included a generation of white male novelists (Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and John Updike) whose larger-than-life personalities he drew on while creating the main character in his second novel, “Eastman Was Here.” In the book, Alan Eastman is an embittered writer who travels to Saigon in 1973 in a bid to recover his lost mojo.
The novel’s Vietnam sections pay homage to Gilvarry’s father, a Vietnam veteran. “I always heard his stories growing up,” he said. “A lot of the locations were just implanted in my head through him, and they came out when I was writing.” One scene in particular, in which Eastman eats a steak dinner at Saigon’s Rex Hotel, he said, is “a little nod to my father.”
Like the literary lions who inspired his creation, Eastman behaves badly. “Writing this character was kind of like an experiment for me,” Gilvarry said. “I know people are turned off by old white male characters talking about their marriages. We’ve had decades of those kinds of novels. All those criticisms are true. I wanted to kind of investigate it and bring it into the book as a topic.”
In literature anyway, the best characters are often the worst people. “I love the unlikeable narrator,” Gilvarry said. “I just think it’s so entertaining to read. He’s always shooting himself in the foot and running his mouth.”
Gilvarry will read 7 p.m. Wednesday at Harvard Book Store.Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.