Early in his new book, Geoff Dyer offers some wisdom: “Nine times out of ten the most charming thing to say in any given situation will be the exact opposite of what one really feels.”
Taking that under advisement, I found all the jokes in Dyer’s Another Great Day At Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush to be hilarious – especially the many, many times Dyer makes a funny by dropping bon mots on the boat. His ability to sell a book for 52 dollars based on 14 days of reporting is an inspiration to all aspiring writers labouring in the desiccated publishing vineyards all across this big blue marble. Dyer’s choice to make his story revolve around his attempt to get his own stateroom and upgraded eats while the other 5,000 men and women on board consume slop and sleep stacked in bunks like wilted flapjacks is, well, intriguing. I absolutely concur with Luc Sante’s blurb saying “that what holds [Dyer’s work] together is a voice which becomes a persona.”
Let’s move to the other one time out of ten. Sante has it right, to a degree. The critically acclaimed Dyer is a writering writer’s writer, known for his misanthrope-out-of-water essays where he takes said persona – wry, dry Brit – and pounds it into a marinated flank steak of words. Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D. H. Lawrence, for example, is superficially about Dyer not being able to write a book on Lawrence but Dyer would admit it’s really just a set-up for Dyer riffing on Lawrence. That approach works exponentially better when applied to highfalutin subjects such as Lawrence or the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Out amongst people who work for a living, Dyer’s persona collapses into a caricature of the middle-aged crank adrift at sea, a man who definitely has not checked his privilege. His approach will resonate with Dyer loyalists who have never successfully navigated a paddleboat – Dyer readers, some offense – but with few others.
Another Great Day At Sea is the first in a series inspired by Alain de Botton’s A Week At The Airport, chronicling seven days spent at Heathrow. Authors are embedded as writers-in-residence for short periods in exotic locales. Dyer is granted two weeks on the USS Bush. The nuclear-powered carrier wanders around the Persian Gulf as the boat’s jets, Hornets, Prowlers, and Greyhounds burn dinosaurs – Navy speak for grinding through fuel with no real purpose – in the sky not far off the Iranian coast. Nothing much happens, which, from personal experience, I can tell you is commonplace on aircraft carriers, until it’s not; weeks, if not months, of boredom where the best entertainment to be found is sailors waiting in toilet stalls for hours so they can dump a bucket of ice water on an unsuspecting compadre. This is punctuated by moments of terror when a jet’s landing gear won’t drop down in the middle of the night and the pilot is waved off and forced to belly-flop his plane on a strange airfield in Oman where the controller speaks little English.
Dyer’s two uneventful weeks could make for a snappy magazine piece – not coincidentally The New Yorker recently ran a judicious excerpt that captures the essential parts of Dyer’s story – but it’s not enough for a book, even a short one. Dyer alternately tap-dances and performs stand-up. He eats a page of his notes when an officer’s speech wanders into almost classified material. He goes to the gym, sees the hardbodies – much of the Navy is never in better shape than while at sea; a combination of empty hours and days spent in 100 degree conditions – and asks where he can buy steroids. The Bush’s medical officer reports they gave flu shots to 5,000 men and women in 72 hours and Dyer responds, “The needle must have been pretty blunt by the end of that.”
Jokes, the man has jokes! Alas, most of them are this cringeworthy and left me wondering if Dyer’s editor secretly hated him. The fact Dyer cops to his comedic failings, lamenting his “doomed attempts to sound clever” just makes him your crusty old uncle who bores the family with bad puns at holiday time and then apologizes after the Christmas crackers are tossed in the bin.
By page nine, Dyer is whinging about the machinations he has gone through in the quest for his own stateroom – like much of the rest of Another Great Day At Sea, it’s done with alleged comic intent. He quips, “But we writers need a room of one’s own, I claimed, trusting that grammatical damage would be more than offset – in the eyes of the Navy – by the Virginia Woolf allusion.” Oh yes, the United States Navy loves nothing more than a good Woolf allusion.
Dyer ends up in the Vice Presidential room where he can piss in his private sink with impunity. His short stay, literary droppings, and posh accommodations betray that he’s going to get about as close to the real life of an aircraft carrier as a sportswriter watching from a Rogers Centre hotel suite gets to the inside of the Blue Jays’ clubhouse. Life on an aircraft carrier is not unlike negotiating the vastness of New York City or Mumbai; it’s hard to get a handle on after decades on board – many of the naval officers I know have never seen the nuclear reactors powering their carrier – and if you insist on staying apart you’re going to learn next to nothing about the locals.
Dyer doesn’t spend enough time with any one man or woman to get anywhere real. This is whatever you want to call the opposite of immersion journalism. He spends his days doing quickie interviews with the Bush’s drug counselor, the boat’s prison guards (they have no inmates) and eventually visits the dentist. He raves about the teeth cleaning, something no one who has ever been in the Navy has ever done. He goes to bed for the first time in forty years without brushing. This left me wondering if had ever visited a dentist on dry land. They’re pretty good!
Carrier life is more Catch-22 than Catch-22. Missions are flown from the Gulf to Afghanistan that could be handled by the Air Force in-country from Bagram Air Force Base, but the Navy doesn’t want to give up their piece of the war so planes spend hours flying up and down “the boulevard,” hundreds of miles from carrier to battlefield. Commanding officers of squadrons have careers ruined because a 19-year-old kid mechanic doesn’t want to wear his safety goggles and loses an eyes when a pneumatic hose snaps back on him while repairing a plane at two in the morning.
But Dyer never gets past the “wow, this is weird” stage and into the reality that these are regular citizens, some smart, some dumb, some brave, some shirkers, living out their lives in grueling days that becomes normal to them. There are sporadic moments of clarity. Dyer points out that the British probably wouldn’t be jazzed by the presence of Iranian boats camped off the English coast so we shouldn’t expect the Iranians to be doing handstands over a square mile of American sovereignty sitting off their shores. But most of it is the tale of a dyspeptic man not connecting with his own species; the fact it is a shtick doesn’t make it any more convincing.
The most egregious condescension comes when Dyer attends a church service in the boat’s catacombs. Like a thousand well-heeled writers before him, he is moved to near tears by the beautiful music, but then is shocked – shocked! – that the songs are followed by a fire and brimstone sermon. He writes, “It was a terrible shame. The singing had been so wonderful but now the evening had descended into low-level lit crit of a text that didn’t merit any kind of serious scrutiny.” He and his photographer eventually sneak out and you’re left with the impression that Dyer is genuinely surprised that folks actually believe in God and don’t come just for the free snacks and snappy tunes.
Dyer gets what he came for in the end: an upgrade to the flag officer’s mess, a good omelette, and a place-filler book that undoubtedly will be followed by a more substantial one soon enough. There is one episode that rings true. One night, a man is thought to have fallen overboard into the dark waters of the Gulf. Muster is called. A press officer comes to Dyer’s door. He tells him to do nothing, just stay in his stateroom.
Dyer does as he is told.
Stephen Rodrick is the author of The Magical Stranger, available in paperback on June 10.