Another Great Day at Sea

“Looking at Constable’s cloud studies in the Tate,” wrote the British author and flâneur Geoff Dyer in a 1992 essay, “I find myself thinking how much better they would look with a Spitfire swooping down through the cumulus.” The subject of that piece, “The Airfix Generation,” was his obsession with model World War II aircraft. Dyer writes about anything and everything he wants to — art, literature, music, cinema, travel, warfare, comics, being an only child, doughnuts — and two years later, in 1994, what he wanted to write about was riding shotgun in a MiG-29 fighter jet, so he arranged to do it (“The Wrong Stuff”). Two decades later, his passion for aeronautics still undiminished, Dyer has written Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H. W. Bush, about his experiences as a guest on an American aircraft carrier.

Unlike, say, a police ride-along, a holiday on a carrier isn’t something just anyone can sign up for. Even Dyer, who seems to get to do whatever he wants and isn’t always reluctant to gloat about it, had to wait to have his shoulder tapped by Alain de Botton. De Botton, the Swiss-British writer, is a director of the Writers in Residence program, a nonprofit that pairs outstanding writers and Magnum photographers with “key institutions of the modern world.” Asked where he’d like to go, Dyer didn’t have to do much daydreaming to arrive at an answer. The carrier “had to be American,” not only because the British don’t currently have one but also because, in Dyer’s view, Britain is itself “a kind of gigantically expanded carrier.” An American carrier, Dyer assumed, would faithfully reproduce small-town American life, American American-ness, “a source of pleasure and happiness.”

Much is made by readers and critics of Dyer’s genre-jumping or -bending or -inventing, his temperamental unwillingness to color inside the lines, but Another Great Day at Sea is an accessible book, even a conventional one: a fish-out-of-water narrative. Dyer is the tallest, skinniest, pickiest, whiniest, least-adaptable individual on the ship. He insists on a room of his own, though “[e]nlisted men and women are in berths of up to two hundred.” The sound of jets taking off and landing “made a leaf-blower sound like…the kind of ambient CD played during a crystal-healing or reiki session.” After learning of the “Bahrain bug,” Dyer decides “never [to pass] up a chance to sanitize my hands as if we were docked at the harbour in Camus’s Oran.” Offered food by the captain’s cook, Dyer feels that, having the most cruelly discriminating palate, he “deserved this meal more than anyone else on the boat.”

Dyer may be one of the tallest men on board the carrier, but his incessant complaining and his scrupulous attention to discomfort render him Lilliputian alongside his hosts. Ultra-fit men clad in “cranials” (black-visored helmets) and chains, a look Dyer calls a mixture of sci-fi and medieval, don’t exactly swagger: “[T]here was just the grace that comes from having to minimize effort if a task is to be properly done.” Dyer’s last book, Zona, was nominally about the Russian film Stalker, but in large part really about Geoff Dyer; Another Great Day at Sea purports to be about an aircraft carrier but is really about tasks properly done, in a context where the consequences of even minor slip-ups can be catastrophic. Dyer does a better than expected job of subordinating his inimitable personality and prismatic style to the awe he feels in the presence of true competence:

“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…a vision of a fulfilled and industrious America, each person indispensible 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?”

The occupations as described by Dyer run the gamut from the pulse-pounding to the mundane. There are the pilots, who must “land on a postage stamp,” and also the personnel who operate the catapults and maintain the arresting gear for takeoff and landing — a job, one man deadpans, “that teaches you to deal with stress.” Dyer meets the captain, the air wing commander, the lieutenant commander in charge of flight deck control, and a rear admiral (“[f]ive thousand people on the boat and she outranked them all”). None of these bigwigs is quite as memorable as the pilot “Disney,” who quips, “Two-man planes are a pilot and a piece of self-loading baggage” and “Jacks,” a woman Dyer is surprised to find “nice as pie.” The brave souls toiling in the “IKEA of munitions” in the ship’s basement inform Dyer that “if you ain’t ordnance you ain’t shit.”

Again, though, Dyer meets everyone and observes everything he can, not just the people and procedures fit to make a kid’s eyes go wide. He sees the “fit boss” and the senior medical officer; the cooks and the captain’s chef; the petty officer in charge of the brig and a young woman who’d been on the wrong side of the rules; and even the substance abuse counselor and the dentist. He attends a Christian chapel service and shadows a foreign object debris (FOD) walk, a tedious but deadly-serious search for any loose bit that might end up in a jet’s air intake. Of the crew’s attention to detail in all things, Dyer writes: “There was a lesson in this for the UK with its demoralizing, often spirit-sapping culture of health and safety. What we lack is the glamour of safety.”

Along with the close quarters, the awful smells, the execrable food, and the commodes perpetually clogged with “mop heads, T-shirts, underwear, towels, socks, hard-boiled eggs, and eating utensils,” Dyer hates the religiosity he finds on board the ship. His dismissal of the aforementioned chapel service, its Bible study a “low-level lit crit of a text that didn’t merit any kind of serious scrutiny,” would be petulant and embarrassing in an undergraduate, so what is it doing in this otherwise excellent book? It is there, one guesses, so that when the reader reaches the two set pieces in which Dyer’s spiritual jadedness are most sorely tested, he will see the full effect that two weeks in the company of idealists has had on Dyer. Geoff hasn’t scuttled his cynicism, but when we leave him it is listing badly.

Though Dyer gets in a dig here and there against what he perceives as the excesses or hypocrisies of U.S. foreign policy, he is unabashedly in love with our military — and also our optimism. Of the captain’s daily refrain, that it’s a great day to be at sea, Dyer writes: “There was something very American about this ability to dwell constantly in the realm of the improvable superlative.” Indeed. Dyer’s are the best eyes through which to view “carrier-world,” in which a constant straight-faced deference to the walking absurdity that is Dyer becomes “a demonstration, at the level of courtesy, of a larger point: they were willing to lay down their lives for me, for us.”

It is difficult as an American to read Dyer’s book and to appreciate Chris Steele-Perkins’s gorgeous photographs of the carrier without a flush of pride. Readers are free to disagree, even violently, with that sentiment, but if so they ought to thank the United States Navy first. Geoff Dyer certainly has.