Nonfiction

Writing clever but substance skimpy when Geoff Dyer spends two weeks on an aircraft carrier

 
 
 <span class="cutline_leadin">ANOTHER GREAT DAY AT SEA:</span> Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Geoff Dyer. Pantheon. 190 pages. $24.95.
ANOTHER GREAT DAY AT SEA: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Geoff Dyer. Pantheon. 190 pages. $24.95.

Geoff Dyer is one of those guys, a writer’s writer, who can pretty much get away with anything on the printed page. He has shown jaw-dropping audacity and dexterity as he leaps between fiction and nonfiction while decimating the conventions of both genres in the process.

His latest nonfiction volume is the first title in a series of planned “Writers in Residence” projects curated by Alain de Botton, the philosopher-writer who culled a 150-page book out of a week-long residency at Heathrow Airport in 2009. De Botton’s concept is simple: Place some of the greatest writers in the world inside powerful institutions “to observe and reflect on what they see with calm and depth.” Dyer chose an aircraft carrier, and, shockingly, the Pentagon agreed to the two-week residency with conditions.

Readers unfamiliar with Dyer’s work may want to start elsewhere, possibly with his fiction (two of his novels, The Search and The Colour of Memory, have just been reissued by Graywolf). Don’t expect high-voltage immersion reporting on 21st century military life and the geopolitical realities of a square-mile city of firepower floating 28 miles off the shore of Iran. Another Great Day at Sea will appeal to Dyer’s loyal fans accustomed to the antic workings of his febrile mind, readers who understand from the outset that a Dyer book about life on an aircraft carrier is really about the machinations of Dyer’s narcissistic mind as he lives on that carrier.

The book opens with Dyer’s persistent, neurotic demands to secure a private cabin on a ship where most of the crew sleeps 200 to a dormitory. Dyer eventually wears down his Navy handlers and lands in a private stateroom (leaving his award-winning photographer, Chris Perkins-Steele, to cut zzzz’s with the lower castes).

A mild germophobe, Dyer obsesses throughout the fortnight on the diarrhea-producing gruel and regularly clogged toilets. An unathletic Englishman who enjoys his drink and drugs, Dyer marvels at the hardbodies and their deck-top exercise routines and the deprivations of his two weeks at sea without a drink (imagine what that’s like for a sailor who might be gone for months at a time). The gangly author captures the aggravation of being perpetually stooped, constantly fretting about banging his knees and head on the fixtures.

Dyer digresses about the places where sailors might sneak away for a quickie or even some onanistic privacy. He visits the monosyllabic ship psychiatrist, gets his crooked teeth cleaned by the dentist. Some of his jokes and quick wit fall flat with the crew, and some of his unuttered quips will fall flat with the readers, but Dyer manages to elicit some knowing chuckles toward the end when he voluntarily eats a page of his notes after an officer’s speech veers into classified territory.

Little happens, day in and day out, on an aircraft carrier. Such monotony is good, considering the potential consequences that can be wrought by this one-square-mile floating city carrying enough fighter jets to decimate Tehran.

Dyer spends several passages self-deprecatingly reminding the reader of his shortcomings as a reporter of fact. During one of the rare opportunities for excitement and drama during his residence, Dyer doesn’t even get out of bed for a Man Overboard drill, taking notes from his bunk, monitoring the announcements of revised headcounts over the loudspeaker. (After 18 long minutes, everyone is accounted for, and the captain angrily warns the sailors not to throw life jackets or other items off the ship).

On his final night, the fussy eater is invited to enjoy the splendors of the captain’s table, where they dine on savory duck breast instead of the swill served to most of the sailors. Writing of himself in the third person, Dyer “looked up when he heard the Captain say, ‘The event horizon of information. It goes there and it stays there,’ and wished he’d been listening to what had led up to this interesting remark rather than concentrating solely on his now-vanished duck breast. It too had passed on the event horizon.” That’s a witty, cleverly constructed sentence to admire. But it signifies a missed moment — and nothing more.

This wafer-thin breeze of a read probably could have been contained to a lengthy magazine piece (it was recently excerpted in The New Yorker). But its existence in hardcover form is testament to Dyer’s considerable skill, his revered back catalog and his status in the Literary World.

Larry Lebowitz is a writer in Miami.

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