‘Eastman Was Here’ Is A Perfect Send-up Of Repugnant Men And The Unicorns They Love
Talking with Alex Gilvarry about his new novel
As a woman who lives in the world today and regularly interacts with men (it really can't be helped!), I get exposed to my fair share of mansplaining; I've had my fill of managing male fragility. It is, then, not something I specifically seek out in the fictional realm, seeing as how it is, you know, everywhere else. (And I maybe have a tendency more than most to find it in the real world, often falling face first into it, but that's not the point right now.)
But so, when I first picked up Alex Gilvarry's new novel, Eastman Was Here, and saw that it centered around a very particular type of man—the floundering middle-aged white male artist—I paused. Was this, I thought, really a world I wanted to spend time with? I wasn't sure. But because I was sure of how much I liked Gilvarry's writing (Eastman is his second novel; his first was the highly acclaimed From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant), I dove in. And I was immediately grateful I had.
With the character of Alan Eastman, Gilvarry has created one of the more tragic (particularly in Eastman's own eyes) figures in modern fiction. The novel opens in 1973, with Eastman in a state of near total collapse: His writing career peaked when he was a young man and has been on a downward trajectory for decades; his beloved younger wife (his second, his "unicorn") has announced she's leaving him; and even his body has betrayed him—he's gained quite a stomach lately, and his back has given out. He needs a change—and he gets it. Almost by accident, Eastman finds himself in Saigon on a reporting trip, in the waning days of the Vietnam War. He has accepted a newspaper assignment as a way to revitalize not only his career, but also his marriage, both things he is committed to, even as he possesses no small amount of hurt, outrage, self-pity, and contempt, in their general direction. And while Eastman's life certainly does change by the time he gets back to New York, back to his home, having published a front page dispatch on the war and reconciled with his wife, the question remains over whether or not Eastman himself changed, and whether change is even possible in a man like that.
Below, I talk with Gilvarry about what it was like to write from the point of view of this kind of man, whether or not some people are capable of change, and how unicorns don't have to be perfect.
When I first started reading this book, I found myself thinking that, in real life, I would automatically find someone like Eastman repellent, but as I found myself enjoying being in his company while I was reading, I was forced to ask myself... would I? Like, is it okay to enjoy Eastman, at least from a distance?
I'm glad you did. I was wondering, like, Oh my god, is this not going to work, and people will just think I’m a misogynist? And with a really awful sense of humor?
What about this particular artistic figure was appealing to you? What did you want to capture with him?
When you read a lot of these older authors post-war, like Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow—and I’ve gravitated toward these writers somehow in my life—the language can be so sexist and the points can be so sexist, and you’re wondering, How do they get away with it? Why are they still read? I mean, I wanted to read them. I actually still admire many of these authors. But why were they so easily forgiven for some of these often sexist attitudes and horrifying statements? Mailer, for instance, stabbed his second wife, and that was way early in his career, and he went on to win the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. I was just really interested in uncovering and thinking through how these men were able to get away with it. Not because I wanted to get away with it myself, but I just think it’s almost like criminal, you know?
I mean, in some cases, like, actually criminal.
Yeah, actually criminal. You know, actually, in earlier drafts, I was really going to base this character much more closely on Norman Mailer—he’s sort of inspired by that type of male writer—and then when I actually got to the point in his biography where I read that, I was like, I got to let this Mailer go. I couldn’t reconcile that act of violence, which was really, really, really awful. So on that note, what was it like to inhabit one of these guys? You know, you begin to recognize all the kind of incorrect male thought processes that you have yourself. Like, I began to realize that my book buying is very male-centric. Or my reading, my non-fiction reading. And so, I actually possessed some of these attitudes. So that was both scary, and it was a good experiment to inhabit a character like this because you can correct those things.
It was also kind of fun because he’s not always being a sexist jerk. Like, he’s doing things in the book, like telling people off, that I never really get to do in real life because I’m so polite, and I don’t want to cause any conflict whatsoever. So having a character say things that you would never say, I think for any author that’s kind of fun. And then he’s also 50 years old, I’m 36, I’m a little younger than him, but I’m at a point in my life where my body is starting to have aches and pains and all these weird things that have never happened to me before. It was easy for me to imagine being 50 and it just getting worse.
At the beginning of the novel, Eastman is just completely having a breakdown in every area of his life. It’s obviously a compelling place to start a narrative because he can have a redemptive arc, except that it’s not really that way; it’s still so unstable.
Yeah, I started the book in that way, where everything is falling apart and he’s already on a downward spiral. And I thought, no matter who the character is, when somebody’s at their lowest, you can empathize with them. We’ve all been through horrible breakups, and I was channeling that—what it’s like to have somebody leave you. And what it’s like to go through all those true feelings, like how that person was the greatest, but also how they’re crap perhaps. And I wanted to start there, and I wanted to see if, somehow in real life, we will reconcile with these problems, even if we think it’s the end and not all of them have solutions, but somehow we can get beyond them. So I wanted to make it as real as possible because I think of this in many ways as a love story. I was thinking about him being in love with his wife and maybe his mistress and now falling in love with someone new when he gets to Vietnam. And really that was my through line of the book—I wanted to see how he could heal himself or not heal himself and probably shoot his foot a bunch of times along the way. But then at the end, I wanted some kind of resolve, and he’s sort of getting back together with his wife, but you kind of know that maybe that’s not going to be the right path.
No, I did not feel like that was the right path. She did not really seem too sure about her decision.
Those were the real things I wanted to write about, those real feelings that you have when you do things for love and in relationships. Those are the things that I love feeling as a reader in a novel, no matter what period it takes place in.
There's a point early on in the book when Eastman is at a party and he sees a Rothko on the wall that he thinks another friend of his probably sold to get some money, and he marvels over the way some people will do anything to stay idle in their lives. And Eastman is kind of like that, only instead of selling a Rothko, he goes to Vietnam to ironically maintain the status quo. What was so fascinating to me was that a trip halfway around the world to a war zone was actually his way of staying idle, and not dealing with his marriage.
When we’re in these situations, we make decisions because we think they’re the right thing to do, and then sometimes there are so many ulterior motives going on subconsciously that we don’t come to realize till after, and I think I was trying to capture that with him when he goes to Vietnam.
It’s fascinating to see how someone can completely change everything around themselves and uproot themselves, but still exhibit the same behavioral problems.
He doesn’t change. It’s funny, I feel like he’s partly me, but he’s also a bunch of my exes in the way that I found that sometimes people don’t change. They may do something to you that’s very hurtful, and you may get over it and you think things are better, but then a couple months later, the same kind of thing happens, and you’re like, "What the hell am I thinking, being with this person?" But I’ve experienced this even years later, where the person doesn’t change at their core. Eastman does realize some things when he’s in Vietnam, but he doesn’t change enough. He doesn’t stop being that narcissist and self-important person. He really loves himself.
It's interesting how Anne Channing [a younger journalist he meets in Vietnam] reacts to that narcissism and self-importance. I wanted her to be repelled by him, but she finds herself interested in him. And I found that very realistic and sadly relatable. How did you feel writing her character?
I really liked her character, and after spending so much time with him in the novel, and then writing her, I found it very refreshing, and I think it might be refreshing for the reader, too. Because we see a little bit of the story through her point of view. I was trying to make her as real as possible, because in that situation, where you’re a reporter and you’re away for many months, sometimes years, in a war zone or a foreign place, even when you’re traveling alone, people get lonely. I saw her as somebody with a really great work ethic and talent and values, but someone who was a little bit lonely. And Eastman comes along, someone who she was maybe secretly idolized or even liked once upon a time, and now she’s getting to spend time with him. And he’s repugnant and crude, but still, she’s like, "Okay, I’ll meet you for a drink." There’s almost a thrill to just sitting with him and hanging out with him. And I thought that was something that was very real too. Even though it’s not technically consistent with the type of person she is, we do, do things like that. We’re drawn to people that we really shouldn’t like.
We really are.
We really shouldn’t like them, and it’s not going to go anywhere, and it’s going to end badly, but somehow we still get sucked into it. And thinking about my life, looking back on it—there are so many moments I’ve had that are like that. And she has one of those moments where she’s like, Oh, maybe I could go out with him. We’re in Vietnam, who’s going to know? Let me try it. But she correctly comes to her senses. And somehow he gets something out of their relationship, too.
Also, she has to live by this other code of conduct while she's there and be very restrained, so as not to draw attention to herself, so, of course, that's another way that Eastman is going to be compelling, because he’s super free in his behaviors. Also, I thought it was really great how Penny [Eastman's second wife, his "unicorn"] is not revealed to be the long-suffering wife who just was dealing with Eastman’s affairs. Instead, she had this really rich, secret personal life that was quite colorful.
Yeah, there’s always a wife character who’s been cheated on, and she didn’t know anything about it and she’s just a tragic figure, and Penny, I wanted to be the opposite of that. She’s got a lot of things going on, and she’s her own person, and this is at the middle or the tail end of the sexual revolution. And so she leaves him, and there’s another man that she started a relationship with. I wanted to have a character reconcile and deal with that. Eastman is kind of a hypocrite because he’s been doing that for years. I had a lot of fun writing her character. That’s another character who does all these things I wouldn’t do. It was fun to write freely like that. And it set up interesting dynamics. I’ve certainly been in situations with people like Penny, and I think many people have. And you have to ask yourself questions, like, Why do I want to be back with this person, do I want to chase this person? This is crazy. But love is crazy.
Eastman Was Here is available for purchase here.