IN RETROSPECT, it seems clear that Norman Mailer, the author, director, columnist, TV personality, war veteran, and wild-eyed raconteur, developed a sense of himself over his varied career as playing the part of a character in a novel. As he wrote of himself in his enduring record of the 1960s war protest movement, The Armies of the Night: “His consolation in those hours when he was most uncharitable to himself is that taken at his very worst he was at least still worthy of being a character in a novel by Balzac, win one day, lose the next, and do it with boom! and baroque in the style.”
At several decades’ remove, Alex Gilvarry has taken Mailer up on his daydream (with apologies to Balzac), starting out with Norman Mailer and transmuting his essence into his own Alan Eastman. Eastman Was Here, premised on a trip to report the Vietnam War for the International Herald Tribune that Mailer never in fact made, follows a once-celebrated author in the aftermath of his wife leaving him. To win her back, Eastman decides to venture out into harm’s way — or in the general direction of harm, where menace might be lurking in the streets outside his hotel in Saigon — and there encounters a talented, young journalist named Anne Channing. Not so much a story of the Vietnam War, Eastman Was Here explores the absurd excesses and shameful depredations of the masculine ego, somewhat in the manner that Jonathan Franzen renders his Lambert family patriarch vulnerable in The Corrections.
“Women commanded their own destiny,” thinks Alan Eastman, “unlike in his mother’s time. In fact, this is what he most admired about the women in his life. All of his past lovers had some big, commanding presence, an outward destiny, that made him feel the need to attach himself, for maybe that’s what made him happy.”
Well, at least Eastman’s heart is in the right place.
I set out to speak with Gilvarry, a friend, by first attending his book release party at McNally Jackson where he spoke with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh; then in Brooklyn at Greenlight Bookstore, where he was in conversation with his wife, Alexandra Kleeman. I wanted to hear what was said so that I didn’t ask the same questions when I got my chance. In the end, we discussed Eastman and Mailer, the place of the “macho male chauvinist” and obscenity in contemporary fiction, finding sympathy in satire, and the concept of authorial humility.
J. T. PRICE: Eastman Was Here, like your first novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, pivots between two seemingly incongruous “worlds”: in the case of the earlier book, fashion in New York City and captivity in Guantanamo Bay, and now in the current, high-wire literary salons and high-tension Saigon during the Vietnam War. What is it about spanning incongruous social spheres that attracts you as an author?
ALEX GILVARRY: I want a book to bring me into a world I’ve never been to before. That’s an amazing feeling when it happens, when as a reader you’re fully immersed. Many of the locations I write about attract me with their problems, their people, or through nostalgia. Like the literary world of the past. I’m not really nostalgic for the martini lunches and all that. But in the book there’s a point where Eastman takes a walk down old Book Row in New York and remembers his life and career in the ’50s. Those are the moments I’m looking for.
Was there a particular scene that served as the genesis of this book? That walk down old Book Row, now gone, is a vivid one for those of us who love old books.
Not really. I started at the beginning, in chapter one. An aging journalist in his house who has just been left by his wife of 10 years. It all started from there.
Satire often registers as unkind to its subjects. Several riotous set pieces aside, Eastman Was Here does not feel purely satirical. How did you find your right balance between satire and sympathy in writing Eastman?
I think because in my mind I wasn’t writing a satire. I was writing a roman à clef, like The Moon and Sixpence or something. All I was thinking about was the character and taking his story as seriously as possible, and maybe that’s where the sympathy comes from. It turns out this can be read as a satire, for sure. But I wrote it as a story based on real life.
Your character, Anne Channing, an intrepid photographer and war reporter, stands as a foil to Eastman’s washed-up celeb status. All the same, in the story, she confesses to feeling drawn to him. Stepping from the novel’s “reality” to our own real lives, what is appealing about Norman Mailer as a writer, in the books of his that you see as his best?
Anne Channing is attracted to Eastman in the way that we are sometimes attracted to people who aren’t good for us. I think we can all relate to that, at some point in our lives.
Mailer was first appealing to me as a controversial figure. I knew his reputation as a rabble-rouser and someone who would knock your teeth out before I had read any of his books. And then when I was in college I remember watching a screening of Town Bloody Hall in a literature class, and from that film, I found his reputation to be quite true. He talked very fast and sometimes didn’t make any sense to me …
Then when I went to the Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, I was forced to look at Mailer as a writer. To be honest, before this, I had no desire to read him. But there I discovered some good things and some you might expect. The contempt for feminism, the willingness to pounce on anyone who offended him. Though some of the books hold up. Like Advertisements for Myself — which shows the male mind and ego of a writer in the ’50s. And The Armies of the Night, which is a great snapshot of literary life and politics during the ’60s. Armies is probably the most relevant book to read today, as it shows a country divided and the meaning of protest and the doubts protesters may feel.
Yes, The Armies of the Night is terrific and relevant.
Isn’t it? That’s Mailer’s sweet spot. He’s learned humility. Arguably, not always present in his other work.
Also, The Executioner’s Song is really good for true-crime heads. So for anyone interested in those subjects, please, read him. His thoughts on ancient Egypt and good and evil and God I’m not so crazy about.
You and I have had beers before. Let’s pretend for a moment we’re having beers now. Norman Mailer, circa the late ’50s, walks into the bar and shouts out your name. “Gilvarry,” he says, approaching, “I’ll have you know that I read what you may call ‘a novel’ but I call…” and here he unleashes a string of choice obscenities while waving his arms around in aggravated ape fashion. How do you respond? (I’ve ducked bravely beneath a nearby table.)
[Laughs.] You see, writers like us today are not good at handling confrontation. So my initial instinct would be to duck under the table with you. But I suppose since there’s no way out, I’d tell him I read his last hand job of a novel, too, and found it as exciting as watching paint dry.
And things would only escalate from there.
Mailer, from what I learned from his friends and family, liked to spar a bit. You have to hit these guys back or they won’t respect you.
Once almost baited Sonny Liston into a fight, or so he claimed.
He also claimed that he was five foot ten. He liked to exaggerate.
Much fun is had in Eastman Was Here at the expense of Eastman’s Mailer-like ego, which made me think of the sensibility of the novel as somehow deeply informed by its opposite: authorial humility. How would you describe that quality, i.e., what does it mean to you? Say, within the context of, let’s call it, contemporary letters — our present-day book publishing scene?
That’s a very good read. You have to combat your ego with humility I think. It takes an ego to think anyone would want to read what you write. But I realize that it’s only a book, a novel, a fiction that I’ve written. In the scheme of things — considering all of media and entertainment today — it’s a very small spec.
I’ve heard you tell of the research you did for this novel, traveling to the Harry Ransom Center in Texas. What was it like studying the life and letters of a writer who moved during most of his career under the hot lights of literary celebrity and then to find that now, among the younger generation, he goes relatively unread?
You see, Mailer was important in his day and people treated him with importance. He was a literary celebrity, and he could do anything he wanted artistically or in journalism. (With the exception of writing in The New Yorker, I don’t think he had an easy time over there.)
Ah, The New Yorker. Holding the line, then and now.
Going into anyone’s personal and professional archive is a thrill. You get to know what they were really thinking about so and so. You get to see them at their most vulnerable and at their most proud. It’s an incredible adventure. But the best letters were not those regarding celebrity or literary fights. The best letters were those he might have sent to his first wife while he was stationed in the Philippines. You discover love and passion, and then you fast-forward and they broke up. This stuff can be heartbreaking. What a debt I owe to the Ransom Center.
Indeed. Beautiful, unexpected little recorded moments of consciousness. And reconciling that, as you read, with both his outsized reputation then and where he stands with the readers of today.
Yes, that’s pretty much what you begin to feel. But I was writing a novel so I was looking for ways into a very hardened, unlikable character. So I’m not saying, “Hey, let’s give these old dead white guys a chance!” For my purposes, in crafting a fiction, I found a way into a character. Reconciling with the way readers feel about Mailer today is hard to change. He wrote what he wrote, said what he said, hurt some people along the way. A reputation is not yours to control.
Is Eastman Was Here a feminist novel? I think it’s compelling, how even as an exploration of the grandiosity and excesses of male ego, the cover shows us a ghostly vision of a woman … as if that is what most constitutes, or haunts, Eastman’s interiority. (And in the story you write, yes, it is.)
Yes. It didn’t set out to be. But the women in this novel are feminists or embody feminist ideas because I believe in them too.
Nowhere in our contemporary lit landscape do we find a presence like Mailer — at least one as outwardly outrageous as he was. We might even say that the qualities of personality Mailer performed have been “repressed” within our contemporary scene. Meanwhile, the man sitting in the Oval Office has reared up in our collective consciousness like some sort of monstrous Mailer-esque id: an outer-borough born creature of tabloid celebrity, ego-driven, quick to hold grudges and pick senseless fights, scornful of “P.C.” culture, self-destructive, vain … yet also — decidedly unlike Mailer! — completely ignorant of contemporary literature. Maybe I’m getting a little vainglorious here, but in some sense, was Mailer as literary celebrity a sort of three-headed dog that kept darker forces of raging male id somehow at bay?
It’s a good thing that the qualities that Mailer exhibited, the macho male chauvinist, have been repressed. Not repressed, but cast out of literature, exiled altogether. A year ago I would have said that this had no place in politics either. My god, how wrong we were. Trump, by acting like an imbecile and a chauvinist, has signaled that hateful rhetoric and behavior is now okay. But this is beyond a culture war. Real policies are at stake in all aspects of American life and that’s what I want to concentrate my energy on now.
Here’s a passage from The Armies of the Night that I take to be Mailer giving a summation of his work:
He was off into obscenity. It gave a heartiness like the blood of beef tea to his associations. There was no villainy in obscenity for him, just — paradoxically, characteristically — his love for America. […] What none of the editorial writers ever mentioned was that that noble common man was obscene as an old goat, and his obscenity was what saved him. The sanity of said common democratic man was in his humor, his humor was in his obscenity.
On an immediate level, Mailer’s talking about himself. But is it true about America at large, do you think? By “casting out” that rollicking obscenity that Mailer sees as endemic to the sanity of common democratic man, does literature lose something?
When thinking of Donald Trump and the shameful America he envisions, there might be a bit of truth to this saying. But god, the “heartiness like the blood of beef tea,” what a terrible turn of phrase. So Mailer. Each book had some of his best stuff and some of his worst.
Beef tea. I’m going to have that taste in my mouth for the rest of the day. Eck.