Eastman Was Here by Alex Gilvarry
When a story’s main character possesses that ideal blend of questionable decisions and idiosyncratic worldviews, the resulting novel can really soar. Novelist Alex Gilvarry has accomplished this in the protagonist of Alan Eastman, the titular character of Eastman Was Here. Gilvarry channels a bit of DeLillo in terms of structure and humor, but absolutely shines through his own voice and style. The resulting book is tightly written, smartly delivered, and undoubtedly relevant.
The character of Alan Eastman is a fifty-something career journalist and author in 1973’s New York City. His resume features only one work of true prominence—a book based on his observations of the war in the Philippines—later optioned as a feature film. In the twenty years following, Eastman has been able to pay his bills and maintain a family, but it’s all in the shadow of his single definitive accomplishment. Domestically, his second marriage is teetering on disaster, and hanging in the balance is the well-being of his two young sons. Despite multiple affairs on both sides of the partnership, Eastman believes it’s best to repair his marriage and forge ahead. Then his editor offers to fly him to the Vietnam War for some newspaper dispatches, and Eastman uses the threat of this dangerous journey as the nuclear option in the cold war with his estranged wife. When his hand is forced, his assignment becomes an opportunity to resuscitate his stalling career. Once we do observe Eastman in his supposed “element,” we’re forced to question his devotion to the journalistic craft as we see his selfish priorities blur his unfortunate worldview.
As an engaging protagonist, Eastman works exceptionally well. He has a tragic yet subtle sense of grandeur, and no shortage of off-putting attitudes about gender. Yet readers may be partially seduced by his undoubtedly articulate logic, which is pronounced even in third-person narration. Then come occasional sequences that step into the point of view of a female journalist also covering the war. It’s here we find confirmation of Eastman’s narrative misrepresentations. Eastman isn’t such an unreliable narrator that readers should worry about a Gone Girl type of stunt, but it’s enough to lose our trust early on and question the nuance of every observation he ponders.
Eastman Was Here contains plenty of pertinent thematic material with regard to gender differences. But it never devolves into a sermon, nor is Eastman a male chauvinist caricature. He does have a reputation for some bluntly misogynistic statements made on the news. Though readers are never privy to the transcripts of said exchanges, there’s a wealth of subtle indication embedded in his thought process, and further evidence is found in the way women regard him with a weary, distrustful leer.
Gilvary’s second novel is the perfect length. It has a clear beginning, middle and end, yet with no stale predictability. The prose on display is sharp and seasoned. The exchanges of dialogue always command attention. Many read like a swift sparring match, with the underlying themes right there beneath the surface. It should be noted: For a writer to make the protagonist of his second novel…a writer…is sometimes indicative of a lacking imagination. (If anything, this tale could be Gilvary, currently age 34, writing a cautionary tale to himself about the self-absorbed hack he could become in subsequent decades.) Thankfully, the struggle of journalistic writer’s block isn’t the only engine driving the story. It’s also the chronicle of a problematic white male grappling with the reality of his proud selfishness and questionable courage, which complicate his presence within his own family and among the foreign lands he traverses.
Eastman Was Here absolutely feels like a full and satisfying novel; nothing is missing. Yet there could also be a standalone prequel somewhere in the mythology. There are entire phases of Eastman’s life that are occasionally explored in flashbacks—his first marriage, his dispatches from the Phillipines, and a string of extramarital affairs that are only mentioned indirectly. All the while, what we do learn about Eastman’s past never feels like a digression. It informs the stakes and the motivations at play in his precarious family and the dangerous warzone. Consider this a clear indicator of Alex Gilvarry’s successful character building chops. When you complete Eastman’s story, you’ll want to keep learning more secrets about him.