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.
During my first Christmas break as a high school English teacher in Florida, I sat down with the curriculum, a hand-written list of books Xeroxed so many times that the edges of the letters had become blurry. I had choices with the “Modern Novel,” the next unit of the year. The department head — an ardent, tough teacher of three decades, who had parents protest her teaching of Marquez, who taught Their Eyes Were Watching God to freshmen — reminded me, “If you care for it, you can make the kids care about it.”
When I saw that Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge was a “Modern Novel” on the senior year curriculum, I felt a great space open in my chest. I read Hardy’s poetry, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in college. I didn’t know novels could so unflinching and unblinking. In Hardy, life doesn’t “work out” for everyone. Good people suffer and they die and the world does not ripple at their death. Survival, happiness even, demands compromise, eschewal, and tragedy.
Yes, I was making the choice to ask my students to read what I had. I allowed the kismet of the Hardy option to meet my impulse. His Wessex, the fictional Southwest England setting of his novels, had the same cycles of boom-bust Florida: nature razed for shaky industries, gray metal creeping across green fields. Men, always men, catching feelings about the money to be made, then deciding that the slow rituals of the past can be tossed away.
The Mayor of Casterbridge’s narrative is largely aftermath. In the first chapter, a 20-something hay trusser named Michael Henchard gets catastrophically drunk at a country fair and auctions off his young wife and infant daughter in a fit of self-pitying rage. Hardy’s narrator summarizes Henchard’s beta-male wallowing in the moments before the sale: “The conversation took a high turn…the ruin of good men by bad wives, and, more particularly, the frustration of many a promising youth’s high aims and hopes, and the extinction of his energies, by an early imprudent marriage.” Henchard awakes the next morning, takes a public pledge to abstain from liquor for 20 years, leaves the fair ground, and heads down the south coast of England to the regional hub of Casterbridge.
Almost 20 years later, Henchard has made himself into an agricultural plutocrat. But his white-hot rage and self-loathing burns on. He abuses his employees, fires them on a whim, and white-knuckles his sobriety. When we first see him in middle-age, he’s at the head of a table in Casterbridge’s upmarket inn, surrounded by subordinates, drinking “from his tumbler of water as if to calm himself or to gain time.”
The eyes through which we see this updated but unchanged vision of Henchard? A beautiful, naïve 20-something girl new to town: Henchard’s long-lost daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. The plot unfurls from there in a way that only serialized novels of the Victorian era can. Ancillary characters relay information under the drooping eaves of a shack, the narrator lingers on the symbolism of a bridge’s materials (Hardy himself was trained as an architect), lovers appear suddenly and die accidently, and a bright and decent young Scotsman named Farfrae with new devices for increasing grain production and eyes for Elizabeth-Jane becomes Henchard’s protégé.
In that first year, before asking the students to write a critical essay on the novel, I asked the seniors to “reboot” The Mayor of Casterbridge by writing five-page treatments set in 21-century south Florida.
The results astonished me. Students transformed the grain industry to the hotel business, peopled their stories with car salesmen, and even managed to work in the cocaine trade (thanks, lax bros!). The tumult of Hardy’s take on family and paternity became multi-ethnic families, hidden religious conversions, and addictions to pills or gambling. A right-wing Cuban patriarch (a Henchard) sells his wife and daughter not out of a corn-whiskey abyss but out of a shame for his Caribbean wife and child’s blackness. The end of the agrarian way of life in Hardy’s eyes became, in the eyes of a young woman whose family works on the boats and yachts in Palm Beach County, the transformation of a sleepy, humble fishing village into a glossy, anonymous eco-resort by a young, well-intentioned real estate developer (a Farfrae).
I had read their college essays in the fall. Adolescents, no matter how savvy or guarded, cannot help but disclose. Many of their Hardy-founded creative writings overlapped with their personal essays. Things that they had written in the fall, episodes from their young lives, came back again in their fiction: addiction, the working class, parents, how we live in the natural world, their stories in their towns in Florida, the unforgivable acts that only those close to you can commit, the things about yourself that you will never be able to change. They had shown me, in those college essays, glimpses of themselves at their most vulnerable.
My students conjured Floridian visions of Casterbridge that reflected the state. What would happen when the economy went cadaverous again and the boats and hotel guests disappeared, and Governor Rick Scott decided that fracking the Everglades was the future? How will my students react when the state tries to drug test SNAP recipients? What about when a private prison company tries to sponsor FAU’s football stadium? What about when another black child is killed by the police? To live in Florida in 2015 is to distrust beauty, to suspect relief.
The alchemy of book, classroom setting, geography, cultural moment, and motivated students had produced the godhead of the English classroom: Authentic connections across time, space, and between individual and group. Students were learning that literature’s “equipment for living,” to borrow Kenneth Burke’s phrase, could live inside a 19th-century novel, and that this equipment was honed by suffering resembling their own.
I wondered if I had done anything particularly special. Yes, I love Hardy. Yes, the book came late enough in the term for students to deploy their training in close reading and in claim making. Yes, I did well in setting up the novel, showing slides from the Lake District before showing an image of Picasso’s “Guernica” and asking the students to think about Hardy as the bridge between eras of thinking, ages of belief.
What I could never say, what a teacher should never say, is that I saw myself in one the characters: Michael Henchard. I drank fiercely in my 20s. I alienated peers; lost weekends; spoilt relationships with potential mentors; twisted quiet gatherings into loud, repulsive stand-up; said needlessly provocative things. I did not apologize. Living with shame felt like enough. When I read Henchard’s dialogue to the class, I felt the desperation. I felt how each stupid, instinctual decision he makes in the novel is an attempt to claw back the past, to scrub the quintessential, unnamable weaknesses out of his soul. When I made cases to my students for why Henchard could not be written off as “the worst” or “evil,” I rooted around for how I might defend the worst corners of myself. Sure, I played devil’s advocate for Henchard to present the pithy idea of “human frailty.” But I also played that part to uncover, label, and put away a version of myself.
Did I speak with particular power on Henchard? Did my voice rise in urgency? Did I offer the students a glimpse of the unexpected — digging for identification in a destructive character? What other doors had Casterbridge propped open? Was Henchard a glimpse of their mother? Their brother struggling with pills outside Tampa? How many Elizabeth-Janes did I have in my classroom? Had I made enough space for her story and the stories of my students who saw themselves in her?
In my second year teaching Casterbridge, I omitted the creative assignment. Instead, I asked the students to write an in-class essay about a symbol from the final chapters. Hardy wrote two endings for the novel, and I hesitate to spoil either of them. Both devastate. I foregrounded Casterbridge on our final exam, making the students juxtapose Henchard against other protagonists we read that year: Beowulf, Macbeth, and others. This time the student work was more clinical. Instead of mining their own lives, they examined, like astute literary surgeons, how exactly Henchard’s weaknesses and Elizabeth-Jane’s resilience circle each other in ways that recall Macbeth’s weaknesses and Banquo’s stoicism. One student — an international student, far from home, writing in her second language — wrote a brilliant in-class essay on how Henchard and Macbeth destroy their social and familial networks because their shared “unchecked” ambition confuses destruction with the desire to change. Her essay’s title: “Defeated By Life.”
I’ve just re-read her essay for at least the fifth time, and I wonder about what happened among Hardy, my students, Florida, 2015, and me. If the teenage years are hard enough, what business did I have adding to the misery? In Philip Larkin’s essay on Hardy, “Wanted: A Good Hardy Critic,” he makes the case that Hardy’s chief subject is “suffering.” Larkin argues that inaccurate readers see Hardy’s central characters as a “galleries of ‘losers’ against whom is ranged a contrasting gallery of winners.” We should instead, Larkin writes, see that suffering is “both the truest and the most important element in life, most important in the sense of most necessary to spiritual development.”
Moments of our Florida seemed comfortable: the blistering, pre-lapsarian beauty of seeing parchment-white ibises strolling between the school buildings and hearing students yelling happily as they run out of the school, the daily afternoon rain pausing overhead.
But high school English teachers know two things: adolescence is hard, and the literature you teach should reflect your students’ lives. Therefore, teenagers deserve literature that supplies suffering. For the students living through suffering, Hardy, and writers like him, can locate a student’s suffering and reflect it. That reflection can be a step toward recovery and development. The students living a life of comfort require the shaking alarm bell that survival is hard, people are deeply fallible, and life comprehensively unfair.
You, the teacher, have to dive into yourself to find the books that touch upon your suffering. You’ll teach them with greater urgency and match them to the sufferings of your students. They’ll engage with them — critically, imaginatively — with greater desire. In 2015, text complexity — the degree to which a book challenges, to the point of productive discomfort, a student with its vocabulary, syntax, rhetoric, and structure — is coin of the realm of the English classroom. Take that a step further. At the highest level, the deepest mode of text complexity should foster the deepest kinds of emotional engagements from the teacher and the students. If the book doesn’t affect and afflict everyone in the room, what’s the point? The prevailing winds of education theory seem to advocate for the opaque, “guide on the side” teacher who makes her or his stakes in the text mysterious at best.
Oddly enough, this desire reminds me of Henchard’s final act in Casterbridge: his writing of a will that demands that he be forgotten, that “no sexton be asked to toll the bell. & that nobody is wished to see my dead body. & that no murners walk behind me at my funeral. & that no flours be planted on my grave. & that no man remember me.”
But life, like the classroom, doesn’t work that way. Here, among teenagers and rough drafts, there is no place where the story cannot not see us. We, the students and the teacher, have to stand together under the discomforting light of what we might call suffering, what we might call literature.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.