With "Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush," Geoff Dyer enters the world of maritime adventure with a splash. Dyer spent two weeks in October 2011 as a writer in residence aboard the aircraft carrier while it cruised the Persian Gulf.
Dyer is an odd choice for the job. He's written more than a dozen books, but there's little in his wide-ranging works of novelistic music criticism, meta analyses of film and literature, and novels of eroticism and wanderlust to suggest the English author is up for immersing himself in the U.S. Navy's rich tradition of nautical nomenclature and affinity for highly specific jargon, or as Dyer puts it, an "Acronym Intensive Environment."
Dyer, however, is that rare writer one reads not to learn something new but to enjoy his sidelong take on a subject. Dyer is to essays what Anthony Bourdain is to food, and in "Another Great Day at Sea" his descriptions do not disappoint. Here he is surveying the sea through a pair of night vision goggles: "The sea was a prairie of glitter green. Moon and oil well acquired circles of white light around them. Up overhead — where before there was almost nothing — was a multitude of stars, unimaginably dense, more light than sky, more star than not-star."
Drawn to the cacophony of aircraft taking off and landing, Dyer gets as close to the action as he safely can without actually participating in it, which becomes something of a recurring motif. Outfitted with high-tech ear protection that cancels the roar of the jets, he draws on other senses to describe the choreography of this multi-billion-dollar ballet: "And there was something dreamlike about it: the cranial silence, for one thing, gave the visual — already heightened by the pristine light — an added sharpness. It wasn't just that the aircraft carrier was another world — the flight deck was a world apart from the carrier."
Dyer takes his title from the captain's penchant for using the phrase during his daily address to the crew, a source of good-natured humor that Dyer doesn't miss an opportunity to join. "There was something very American about this ability to dwell constantly in the realm of the improvable superlative."
The thing about aircraft carriers is that they are massive. "Big enough to generate stories about how big they are," Dyer quips. They are unlike any kind of sailing vessel in the world. They aren't vessels so much as worlds unto themselves, the place where the U.S. Navy launches, lands and parks its warplanes. For the vast majority of the crew trapped inside this floating city, the captain's address serves as a much-needed reminder that they are indeed still at sea and all that wartime cruising entails.
From Dyer's account, his days at sea were not so great, but it's the subtitle that's misleading. Before he got underway, Dyer was informed that he would not be bunking alone. Dyer insisted on a change, employing the logic that "Sharing a room with one person is worse than sharing with six and sharing with six is in some ways worse than sharing with sixty."
Ignoring that there is no such thing as a "room" on a ship, Dyer's request is ridiculous, and he knows it. "The essence of my character is an inability to get used to things. This, in fact, is the one thing I have grown accustomed to: an inability to get used to things. As soon as I hear that there's something to get used to I know that I won't; I sort of pledge myself to not getting used to it."
This is classic Dyer shtick, evidence of the manic mind that drives the discursive repetitions and restless circumlocutions in his prose investigations. But as it turns out, there is a single berth available, reserved for visiting dignitaries, which Dyer gleefully accepts.
As a result, Dyer ensures that his experience bears no resemblance to that of the millions of sailors who have gone to sea in big gray ships. If Dyer had opted for a communal berthing experience, he would have learned so much more than he does in the stilted interviews that make up the bulk of the book.
Instead, his narrative is focused on not eating what the rest of the crew is eating, not sleeping where others sleep. In this respect, he is the anti-Bourdain.
This is most evident during a man overboard alarm. Instead of hustling to a watch station with his temporary shipmates for the all-important muster, bonding over a bona fide crisis, he waits in his cabin alone, wondering what the hell is going on. Dyer might as well be on a cruise ship, and he knows it.
"I was supposed to be here as some kind of reporter but I ended up living like a castaway or hostage."
Ruland is a Navy veteran and the host of the reading series Vermin on the Mount. His first novel, "Forest of Fortune," will be published in August.
Another Great Day at Sea
Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush
Pantheon: 208 pp., $24.95