Reviewed by Katya Rara
EASTMAN WAS HERE
By Alex Gilvarry
368 pp. Viking.
Alan Eastman is a trainwreck. It’s 1973, and the biggest years of his writing career are decades behind him, his wife has left him, and nothing seems to be going right.
When Eastman is invited to cover the tail end of the Vietnam War as a foreign correspondent, he gets the brilliant idea of frightening his wife into returning to him—by telling her that he’s accepting the assignment. Except the entire literary world finds out, and soon he finds himself cornered into following through and flying to Vietnam.
But Eastman’s dreams of valor and cutting-edge journalism on the frontlines never materialize. Faced with the reality of his growing insignificance, both in his career and his own family, he bumbles from one misstep to another. And soon he finds that no matter how far he goes, he can’t escape the problems he tried to leave behind.
Eastman Was Here is a comedy of errors, all by Eastman’s own hand
Alan Eastman is a lot of things: Brash. Brilliant. Once upon a time, boyishly good-looking. But he’s also pompous, self-important, and impotent—the portrait of a man emasculated by others’ success. Within the first paragraph, we know Eastman is going to grate on our nerves—and he does. (The novel in a nutshell: “He needed things to go his way. When they didn’t he was miserable.”)
The first half of Eastman Was Here takes place in New York, where we deal with the physical and emotional fallout from his wife’s departure. But while the first part gives a good glimpse of the time period, it becomes clear that Vietnam, where we spend the latter half of the novel, is a mere backdrop for his thoughts and insecurities.
Eastman is a pitiable figure, despite how highly he thinks of himself. But the novel shines when we see Eastman’s virtues and vices illuminated against others’—from his estranged family to his on-and-off mistress, from his literary rival to an ambitious photojournalist stationed in Saigon who once admired him and his work—and it’s hard to suppress both an eyeroll and a smile when we see how the people around him spar with him, a man trapped in the glory of his past.
Alex Gilvarry knows the monster he’s created
Author Gilvarry is unsparing in his portrayal of Eastman. At first it seems like he indulges Eastman’s whims; after all, Eastman enjoys the stature of being a writer more than he actually writes, and it shows.
But as the book progresses, we see that Gilvarry is dryly, wryly aware of Eastman’s failings: his highly inflated sense of self, of course, but also his sexism and misogyny, despite falling in love with women with “some big, commanding presence, an outward destiny, that made him feel the need to attach himself.”
Still, Gilvarry manages to sneak in moments that reveal Eastman’s humanity, as well as beautiful prose amidst egocentric ramblings. In fact, I found myself thinking about the last few chapters, long after I put the book down.
A novel you may not want to read, but that you may need to read
Eastman Was Here isn’t a book I would normally pick up. I steer clear of books revolving around middle-aged white men who think that the world revolves around them, and true enough, I found Eastman deeply unlikable, and the first half of the book, insufferable.
But once Eastman reaches Saigon, you start seeing a clearer picture of him and his place in the world. Turning pages becomes easier. And you begin to appreciate Gilvarry’s skill as a writer, and how he makes his cast of characters come alive.
Eastman Was Here is about many things, but most of all, the destructive nature of insecurity and what it means to have your wishes come true. And considering the world we live in today, I love that we see it all clearly because of one middle-aged man trying to be part of the world when he can’t see beyond his own.
Eastman Was Here by Alex Gilvarry will soon be available at Fully Booked. To reserve a copy in advance, email us at email@example.com.
Katya has had a torrid romance with fiction for over two decades, and sneaks out in the middle of the day for clandestine rendezvous in cafés. She works in advertising and has four poodles. You can find her on Instagram @katerinarara.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]