Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bushby Geoff Dyer
As a child Geoff Dyer spent long hours making and blotchily painting model fighter planes. So as an adult, naturally he jumped at the chance to spend a week onboard the aircraft carrier the USS George H.W. Bush. Part deft travelogue, part unerring social observation, and part finely honed comedy, Another Great Day at Sea is the inimitable/i>/i>… See more details below
As a child Geoff Dyer spent long hours making and blotchily painting model fighter planes. So as an adult, naturally he jumped at the chance to spend a week onboard the aircraft carrier the USS George H.W. Bush. Part deft travelogue, part unerring social observation, and part finely honed comedy, Another Great Day at Sea is the inimitable Dyer’s account of his time spent wandering the ship’s maze of walkways, hatches, and stairs, and talking with the crew—from the Captain to the ship’s dentists. A lanky Englishman in a deeply American world, Dyer brilliantly records daily life aboard this floating fortress, revealing it to be a prism for understanding a society where discipline and conformity become forms of self-expression. At the same time we are reminded why Dyer is celebrated as one of the most original voices in contemporary literature.
This persona-driven work follows Dyer (But Beautiful; The Missing of the Somme) during the two weeks he spent as writer in residence on the USS George H.W. Bush, interviewing the aircraft carrier’s crew, as well as members of the U.S. navy and taking notes on the ship’s general operations. Yet, as is his custom, Dyer makes no pretenses about being a reporter or capturing facts. He claims early on that “the essence of character is the inability to get used to things,” and though he makes due aboard the vast and bustling ship, he knows himself well. The result is an often hilarious and aphoristic, short-chaptered account written by a British essayist who is fascinated by American culture. Always the outsider, Dyer spends most of his time thinking about food, comparing himself to other writers in a self-deprecating manner, or lamenting the ship’s many inconveniences. Dyer is most engaging when he’s coming to terms with his own anxieties, or making sharp observations about the accomplishments of others; he is perhaps at his least sophisticated when whining or indulging his own base desires. Though this isn’t Dyer’s finest work of nonfiction, and he hasn’t tackled his subject matter to its full potential, it is still a highly entertaining read. With color photographs not seen by PW. Agent: Wylie Agency. (May)
Novelist and nonfiction author Dyer (Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, 2012, etc.) goes to sea for an immersive, sometimes-sobering ride aboard an American aircraft carrier.What's a fussy eater who's averse to sharing a room, too tall for cramped corridors and who bears an abhorrence for anything to do with engines or oil aboard the USS George H.W. Bush? From the moment he arrived on the flight deck, there was never a dull moment, which also meant there was never a moment's peace. But the crash and thunder of jets taking off competed with a stultifying muddle of military acronyms, which Dyer tried futilely to comprehend. Of course, this British writer noted for subverting genres is much more interested in the people. He describes a Whitman-esque quality of a "fulfilled and industrious America, each person indispensable to the workings of the larger enterprise," finding himself happily "surrounded by American voices, American friendliness, American politeness." Dyer also locates an unexpected poetics of carrier life, the terrible beauty and lyrical maneuvers of a machine of war (and the self-perpetuating requirement of oil to make the machine go). The author rejects the microminutiae beloved of many reporters, instead capturing a broader canvas with painterly precision. Though he explodes a few persistent myths, more than once, Dyer was moved by a promotion ceremony, an act of consideration, honor or devotion to duty. Ultimately, even as mere observer, he felt privileged to be there yet just as eager to resume his normal life back on "the beach." Though respectful, generally admiring, of those in military service, Dyer remained ambivalent; he fires broadsides against numbing (if necessary) routine, the simplistic thinking of religious conservatism prevalent on board and the inherent contradictions of having a military presence off the coasts of other lands in a way that would never be countenanced near American shores.As usual for Dyer, eccentrically intriguing, occasionally dipping into boyish wonder and spasms of sentiment.
“Dyer stows himself away on an American aircraft carrier, fortunately, with all his hilarious tics in place. A rare kind of nonfiction, with sentences that keep on giving long after your eye has sailed on.” —Steve Martin
“Hilarious. . . . [Dyer is] one of the funniest writers alive.” —Chicago Tribune
“[Dyer] is one of our greatest living critics, not of the arts but of life itself, and one of our most original writers.” —New York Magazine
“Urgent, funny, utterly in-the-moment and achingly honest. . . . Like the captain, like the crew, like the ship, Dyer’s superb book constantly reiterates its excellence. It virtually stands to attention on its own.” —Philip Hoare, The Guardian (London)
“This is what I love about Geoff Dyer’s work: His feet are never on the ground. . . . He’s a philosophical naturalist, a realist.” —Clancy Martin, The New York Times Book Review
“Remarkable. . . . Earnest but never unctuous, light-handed but stirring.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[Another Great Day At Sea] shares sea legs with David Foster Wallace’s brilliant cruise-ship essay ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.’ . . . For all the snap and snark in his prose, Dyer can’t tamp down his generosity of spirit forever.” —NPR.org
“Dyer is to essays what Anthony Bourdain is to food. . . . That rare writer one reads not to learn something new but to enjoy his sidelong take on a subject.” —Los Angles Times
“A total delight. . . . Stuffed with wonderful anecdotes.” —The Independent (London)
“[Dyer is] likely the greatest writer of nonfiction we have. . . . He’s the quintessential everyman through which any reader could substitute his or her own imagination.” —New York Observer
“Filled with curiosity and with admiration.” —The New York Times
“Dyer deftly blends two stories into one short book: a closely observed, respectful account of life and work aboard an aircraft carrier, and the comic adventure of being ‘the oldest and tallest person on ship,’ ducking and stooping his head constantly, struggling with the food and the noise of jets.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“A great day is any day you get to read Geoff Dyer, and this book is no exception. Witty, empathetic, and insatiably curious, he is the perfect guide to the floating world of an American aircraft carrier. A perfect night landing on the ‘postage stamp,’ with élan to spare.” —Sam Lipsyte
“A revelation to lovers of literature, who’ll learn about the military from a master stylist, and to those who love ships and planes, who’ll have the pleasure of a new perspective from a great writer. . . . [Marked by] precise observation, unerring word choice, drop-dead sense of humor and the absurd.” —The Oregonian
“The average writer would make this disparity into fish-out-of-water commentary, but Dyer starts there and then goes off into space, spinning his observations into something profound and beautiful that socks you in the gut.” —Flavorwire
“Thoroughly enjoyable. . . . Installing a writer of Dyer’s baroquely sensitive and self-conscious temperament aboard an American aircraft carrier stationed in the Persian Gulf is obviously a stroke of genius.” —Salon.com
“As concentratedly funny as anything [Dyer’s] written.” —Slate
“When Dyer delves into a specific topic, he delves deeply. . . . As always, he laces his observations with comedy and captivating storytelling.” —Huffington Post
“Dyer has a rare talent. . . . By the end of Another Great Day at Sea, the carrier is no longer forbiddingly otherworldly. . . . [Dyer has] moved from being a dispassionate observer to someone who prays for those who go to sea in ships.” —Financial Times
You've gotta love British author Dyer, the author of so many border-bending books, from fiction to nonfiction to criticism (e.g., the Somerset Maugham Award winner But Beautiful). It's not so surprising to see him writing an account of life aboard an American aircraft carrier, since he devoted many hours during childhood to building model airplanes.
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For the duration of my stay the carrier remained a three-dimensional maze of walkways, stairs and hatches but at some point we always ended up back in the hangar bay—the second most interesting place on the boat (after the flight deck). We passed through there straight after our tour of the kitchen and would do so later the same day, after dark, when it was illuminated by a pale yellow light (less visible from a distance). Now the Arabian sun was peeking through the open expanse of the elevator bay, eager to get a glimpse of whatever was going on in this outpost of industrial America.
Like a buffalo brought down by a lion who then summons the rest of her pride to tuck in, an F-18 was being pecked, prodded and taken apart by a gang of mechanics and engineers. They swarmed over it, drawing metallic entrails from the fuselage, digging into its cockpit and burrowing away in the bowels of the engine. They did this with the utmost care, many of them wearing the soft suede or chamois over-shoes I’d noticed earlier—the heavy industrial equivalent of carpet slippers—to prevent damage to the plane’s delicate skin. The concern was reciprocated: little padded pouches were tied to the sharp edges of the plane’s fins and wings so that heads were not gashed as people hurried by.
A brown-shirted woman was perched on the wing, cross-legged as if at a festival of future archaeology, concentrating closely on the all-important part she was unscrewing. Having taken the component out of the wing she was now coating it with some kind of grease, glue, anti-freeze, lube or whatever. I apologize for the discrepancy between the precision of the task and the imprecision of my description of that task. I have never liked anything that involves engines, oil or fiddly intricate work even though it is, in a way, in my blood. My dad served his apprenticeship and worked at Gloster Aircraft Company, where one of the first operational jet fighters, the Gloster Meteor, was built. Some days he and his workmates would eat lunch outside, munching their bread-rationed sandwiches, watching planes take off and fly around the shirey skies. (My parents were much on my mind while I was on the boat; my mum had died four months before I came on board; my dad would die, quite suddenly, three weeks after I got back.)
A couple of planes away a fuel cell bladder was being replaced. It looked like a cross between a black python and a massively deflated paddling pool. The work was being overseen by a civilian who, like almost all the civilians on the boat, was ex-military (a Vietnam vet from helicopters, search and rescue). If you met him in the street you would guess straightaway that he had been in the military: a directness, a strength (physical, yes, but also of purpose and identity), an instinct for straight talking that is manifest even when (especially when) silent. A young woman was curled up yoga-ishly on the wing of this plane too, replacing something. The fact that she was wearing a cranial and an oil-smeared brown jersey made her eyes even more luminous. I was glad to have an excuse to talk with her. She wiped her face with the back of her hand, as you do when your fingers are oily. It wasn’t exactly a gender-reversal thing going on, but the essential choreography of the scene was being acted out in garages throughout the world: a woman being told what’s wrong with her car, in terms barely comprehensible, by a swarthy grease monkey confident of his knowledge and not embarrassed about the oil-smudged pictures of chicks, mainly blonde, who provide a silent chorus of assent when the complexity of the repair and its estimated cost is eventually revealed. No pin-ups like that here, of course: less, I think, because the women on board might find such things offensive than because any man who even considered such forms of decoration would instantly feel like a total dick. A limp dick at that. It’s striking how many of the world’s little problems—and many of its big ones too—are eliminated by the simplest of solutions: having women around. Just over a fifth of the ship’s company were women. Only men in senior positions were old enough to remember what it was like to have men-only boats. One of these explained to me that the main difference, after women came aboard, was ‘that the boat smelled a bit nicer because the guys showered more.’ Other than that, what surprised him was the speed with which resistance to the idea of gender integration was followed by two related and equally baffling questions: what had all the fuss been about—and why didn’t we do this earlier?*
A stranger to the workplace, I needed only a short time on the boat to realize that the workplace—not pubs, parties or clubs—is the great breeding ground of crushes. Over the years I’d developed a strong idea of all the things about office life that I could not tolerate—like using a shared toilet—but it occurred to me now that I couldn’t take the drain and strain of having crushes on my co-workers. One was spared that at home alone—but one was missing out on it too.
We chatted some more, me and the bright-eyed mechanic who, it turned out, was from Wyoming. (‘Wyoming!’ I trilled. ‘Really?’) It also turned out that another part of our meeting failed to conform to the usual woman-with-car-talking-to-manly-mechanic scenario. Namely that this mechanic had a husband at home who was an ex-Marine. Ah. And they had a four-year-old daughter. Her dad—the dad of the woman I was talking to, grandfather of the four-year-old—was a mechanic and she’d always wanted to be a mechanic herself. It was easy to imagine her as a teenage tomboy, able to mend punctures or tighten a climbing frame that had gone wonky. She was twenty-two now and, looking at her (which I had no desire not to do) I found it difficult to imagine anyone doing what they were doing more contentedly. I dismissed this as soon as I thought it, as soon as I looked around at everyone else, at all the other mechanics and engineers who were going about their business with such concentrated contentment. Even the people who weren’t working were working out, on the exercise bikes or in one of the fitness classes which seemed a 24/7 feature of the hangar deck. Everywhere you looked, everyone was doing something, if not working on the planes then pushing or towing things on trolleys. It was like Whitman’s ‘Song for Occupations’ in an entirely military setting (with a special emphasis on avionics): a vision of a fulfilled and industrious America, each person indispensable to the workings of the larger enterprise, no friction between the person and the task. Which made me think: why not name an aircraft carrier after Whitman? And why stop at Walt? Why not re-brand all the carriers and give them the names of poets? Show me one good reason why the USS Ronald Reagan shouldn’t be called the USS Emily Dickinson.
* I have recorded what I saw and heard, and my impressions of what I saw and heard. For an investigation of sexual abuse in the US military see Kirby Dick’s documentary The Invisible War.
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