In recent years, three novels have caused me to gasp, “No!” while riding the New York City subway. The first two were The Mayor of Casterbridge and Portrait of a Lady. The third was Alex Gilvarry’s Eastman Was Here, the often comical story of Alan Eastman, a Norman Mailer-like writer who, as the novel progresses, displays increasingly appalling—and oddly amusing—gasp-inducing behavior.
Eastman is an almost pathological philanderer and liar, who in an effort to win back his wife and un-stall his literary career, accepts an assignment to report from Vietnam just before Saigon’s fall. Eastman is a selfish, narcissistic, womanizing blowhard—Mailer minus the charm and the literary genius. Gilvarry’s success at creating such a delightfully disagreeable anti-hero is an entertaining rebuttal to the notion that the protagonist of a novel ought to be likable.
Gilvarry’s first novel, From the Memoirs of an Enemy Non-Combatant, is the story of a young fashion-obsessed Filipino immigrant who is arrested and sent to Gitmo after he’s mistaken for a terrorist. Memoirs manages to be both funny and serious while depicting a shift in American ideas about freedom. With Eastman Was Here, Gilvarry delves into the past, but the new work is also a comment on how sensibilities have changed in the literary world—and the country as a whole.
Gilvarry and I were both fellows at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, and we’ve run into one another at various Mailer-related events over the years. Our interview touched on the strengths and weaknesses of post-World War II American male novelists; Gilvarry’s good luck with mentors (Gary Shteyngart and Colum McCann); the research required to depict wartime Saigon; and why Gilvarry felt compelled to grapple with the legend of Norman Mailer.
The following is an edited version of our conversation.
TM: This is your second novel. Is the experience of being published different the second time around?
AG: A little bit. You kinda know what to expect. You don’t want to get your expectations too high. You’re more protective.
TM: Alan Eastman is clearly inspired by Norman Mailer. As I read the book, whenever there was a biographical similarity, I wrote Mailer’s initials: NM. I did this at least a couple of dozen times. The way I read it, Eastman is Mailer, but also not Mailer.
AG: Yeah, I think that’s a good read. Eastman is inspired by Mailer and is a little closer to him in biography at the beginning of his life: childhood, Harvard. They share those biographical details. I wanted him to be like Mailer and not be Mailer too. Probably when the action of the book begins, it splits. Then I fill him with an imaginary emotional life, not Mailer’s at all.
TM: There’s the presence in the novel of a second Maileresque figure, Norman Heimish, who is Eastman’s rival but in many ways seemed almost more like Mailer than Eastman. Why include Heimish in the book?
AG: I thought a character like Eastman needed a rival, somebody who he thought had it all who he had to measure himself up against. I feel like Mailer early on had that with James Jones. I get a lot of mileage when a character is angry. You know, to walk into a book store and see that somebody he despises is selling really well would really burns this guy [Eastman] up.
TM: You’re very interested in writers of the post-WWII generation. What draws you to them?
AG: I like the way novels are written in that period, the fifties, sixties, and seventies America. They’re written differently. They use language that’s taboo, that we don’t use any more. They don’t hold back in the way that my generation will sort of hold back a little.
TM: So there’s something fearless about those postwar writers?
AG: Yeah. Absolutely. They were pushing the envelope. If you just use the example of sex in their books. It’s done kind of fearlessly and shamelessly. And not always in a good way—but sometimes in a really good way. I wanted this book to feel like that, like it was written in that time. I didn’t live in the seventies. So I thought, How am I going to capture the feel of that period without doing all those cheesy period details? But if it could sound like a book from that time, I thought it would help the reality of the read.
TM: I thought also that you captured the philandering of the seventies male writer.
AG: Yeah. The scandals and the philandering—that’s a juicy period for that kind of stuff. Writers don’t really act like that anymore, or at least not in public. I liked writing about that and the incestuous publishing world of that time.
TM: And writers felt like they mattered more during that time.
AG: Yeah. You couldn’t really set this book now because writers aren’t as heralded as they were during that time. So it’s really like a time capsule that a man like Eastman could be like that.
TM: Of course, it’s a mistake to think of that as the good old days. But what I particularly enjoyed was that Eastman was so incredibly unlikeable and selfish. Every time you think he can’t be more selfish or betray another person, he just goes ahead. And you start to look forward to those moments of appalling behavior. But today we’re in a moment when it’s considered a valid piece of literary criticism to say of a novel, “I didn’t like the main character.” So I wonder if you had any internal voice—or any outside voices—who told you not to make Eastman such a wonderful bastard.
AG: Yeah, yeah. It’s a tough thing to do because you don’t want to lose your readers because of someone who is so unlikable. But I thought if I keep liking him, if I keep liking writing these scenes, then I think you’re going to like to read about this unlikable person. I was always thinking: Am I having fun with this scene? Is it entertaining at least in some way? That was sort of my guide. There were some places where I think the character went too far and maybe I had to edit it back. I had two great editors on this book—Patrick Nolan and Beena Kamlani, who is amazing. She was Saul Bellow’s editor for the last years of his life–a great, great editor. She was a really good voice for taming Eastman in certain places.
TM: So to ask the obvious question, what kind of research did you do for the scenes in the novel set in Saigon? Have you ever been to Ho Chi Minh City?
AG: I did go there while I was writing this book because I wanted to set the book in the hotels where all the correspondents stayed: the Continental Hotel and the Caravelle Hotel. And so I went to Vietnam and I kind of just stayed in the hotel where I was setting the novel and got a lay of the land. And I read a lot of great literature set in Vietnam. Gloria Emerson’s Winners and Losers–I really loved that book, and I’m really glad it’s now still in print because it was hard to get for a while. Norton has reprinted it.
TM: Your father is a Vietnam Veteran.
AG: Yeah, I’m probably drawn to the subject because of him. He was there and I heard his stories of being in Saigon. That city to him, it’s like a mythology. He remembers it in a great light, the way Saigon was. He would tell me all sorts of stories about what would go on there. So in some ways I was writing this for him, too.
TM: Has he read it?
AG: He did. He really loved it. He wants me to write a sequel. He’s said, ”I want to find out what happens to these characters. Please write a sequel.”
TM: I wanted to ask you about a passage that fascinated me. At one point you write, “The need to enlighten the world with Eastmanisms was exhausting and erroneous.” And Eastman realizes that “his urges were totalitarian.” To me, this seems like a criticism of Mailer as flawed by his narcissism. Did you intend it that way?
AG: Yeah, I think so. I think that’s a pretty good read. But not just Mailer. Many of the writers of that period were narcissists. I was really writing about Eastman first, but it is critical of that behavior for sure. And subconsciously, I felt that writing about a Norman Mailer-like character I have to make some judgements. There are things in Mailer’s life that are hard for me to reconcile. I think all of his readers who like his work, there’s something that’s a little tough to get around. I have that with Mailer.
TM: The character of the woman reporter Channing in the book was, I thought, very successful, and you did something that I don’t think Mailer ever did very well: created a female character.
AG: Thank you. I needed a strong female character to counterbalance Eastman, and one of the biggest criticisms of Bellow and Mailer and Roth is that they have very thin female characters. So I really needed to reach deep and develop a character that I liked. I think in my first novel I didn’t pay too much attention to the women characters. It came out a little flimsy. I agreed with that critique whenever I got it, so I wanted to correct that about my storytelling and my writing. I wanted to be aware of it.
TM: What was it like being this literary-minded kid growing up in the only borough in New York that voted for Donald Trump?
AG: When I was a kid in Staten Island, I hadn’t even discovered novels. I discovered novels really late; I wanted to write screenplays and write for television because I thought that’s what writers did now. I went to Hunter College in Manhattan. I have a lot in common with Eastman, I think, because growing up in Staten Island, I sort of grew up with a chip on my shoulder, with that feeling that I’ve got to prove myself to people—to people from Manhattan, the Upper East Side. I think I even came into the book business with a chip on my shoulder, like I had to prove myself somehow. It drove me. But you’ve got to realize it. Otherwise, this kind of thinking can destroy you.
TM: And you’ve got these great literary credentials: you worked for Gary Shteyngart and studied with Colin McCann. Can you talk about how this affected the way you write a novel?
AG: Gary Shteyngart was actually the first writer I ever met. He was a teacher at Hunter College when I was an undergraduate, and he had just come out with his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and I didn’t know novels could be that funny. I didn’t know people still wrote novels until I met him. I thought all the great writers were dead. I was much more of a film buff. And I got to meet Gary at a really great time in my life. His work inspired me and I wanted to write just like him.
TM: And you got an MFA, right?
AG: I took a number of years off after I graduated from college and I worked in the publishing industry. And then when I started thinking of a novel of my own, I really needed help. I didn’t know what I was doing. So I went back to Hunter to get an MFA, and I was lucky to meet Colum McCann and he really dug my work. He really believed in what I was doing and thought it was important and gave me a lot of confidence and a lot of support. [Shteyngart and McCann] are really important in my life because I look at them as sort of outsiders. I had something in common with them. They were two outsiders, but they both had an incredible desire to write well and make it. That might just be my impression of it, but they were always going to get there. Their careers were inspiring to me. Their work was inspiring. I learned the most from Colum McCann on a sentence level. And then when I got to work for Gary [as a research assistant] for his book Super Sad True Love Story, I learned the most from Gary about how to research a book and how to fake what you don’t know. I learned the way he can make something seem real. I learned so much from him, things like descriptions. Do descriptions have to come from yourself? No, you can actually research that stuff too.
TM: Well, your descriptions work. As something of an old Jew myself, I thought you captured that mentality in Eastman very nicely.
AG: Well, you know, I’m a New Yorker, so I feel like it’s the same kind of thing. This might not count for anything, but this Christmas I had a DNA test and it turns out that I’m one percent Ashkenazi Jewish. And it’s what I always wanted to be. I wanted to be a New York Jewish writer.