Awe aboard a floating airstrip
There is a lot about military life that makes it ripe for ridicule. The humiliating hierarchies, the endless, seemingly pointless drills, the absurd extremes of discipline, the physical discomfort, the overt and inevitable unfairness. Given a two-week residency on an American aircraft carrier, a writer with the comic gifts of Geoff Dyer might be expected to take the easy path of mocking his hosts.
But one of the things that makes Dyer such an original and surprising writer is the breadth of his intellectual interest. This is the Englishman’s 10th work of nonfiction (in a career spanning almost 30 years, he also has written three novels) and his work has covered subjects ranging from photography to author John Berger, and from yoga to jazz. He’s often described as a ‘‘slacker’’ writer (perhaps because his novels tend to feature idle and hedonistic 20-somethings), yet it turns out he is also something of a military nerd.
As he explains in Another Great Day at Sea, he grew up in postwar England and for children of that era the received memory of World War II “seeped into our pores and brains”. As a boy he used to build model aircraft and the childhood enthusiasm for jets and ships has never left him.
During Dyer’s two weeks on the USS George HW Bush he roams — or rather shuffles, halfbent — through the tiny corridors of the ship, visiting its various departments: ordnance, air traffic control, the brig (it’s empty, much to his disappointment). He speaks to the captain and the pilots, of course, but also to the chaplain, the dentist, the chef, the drug counsellor.
This is an extremely funny book, but Dyer seems not even remotely tempted to deploy his comic gifts at the expense of his interviewees. He deeply admires the ship’s personnel: their energy, their competence in performing complex, high-risk tasks. He finds something profound in their commitment to the idea — stodgy as it sounds in our individualistic culture — of service.
Indeed most of the humour derives from the fact that Dyer portrays himself, by contrast, as variously awkward, old (he’s 56), emasculated, fussy, self-conscious and puerile. Yet somehow his persona remains thoroughly charming. This is not just because he makes fun of himself but because he approaches his research without a trace of cynicism.
There are moments when Dyer is so goodnatured, in fact, that one suspects he’s skimming along on the surface, accepting the official version at the cost of a less palatable reality. (When he is told that race relations, gender relations and the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” have all been non-issues, he remarks wryly to the reader that ‘‘in relation to three of the big areas of potential intolerance and bigotry the Navy was just about as advanced as any other institution on earth’’.)
Dyer is a playful prose stylist and he may af- fect a bumbling persona at times, but as the book progresses we see him grappling with complexities and contradictions. He has an eagle eye for paradox. Standing on the flight deck, observing ground crew safety signals in preparation for a launch, he writes: ‘‘The elaborate, hypnotic choreography on display was devoted entirely to safety, to the safe unleashing of extreme violence. Violence not just in terms of what happened … where the planes were headed, but here, where the immense forces required for launch were kept under simmering control.”
There’s a lot to marvel at on an aircraft carrier: the sheer scale of the vessel, of course (“big enough to generate stories about how big they are”), but also the routine application of extraordinary human skill. A whole book of Dyer wandering bug-eyed around the ship would be tiresome, but somehow he manages to keep his sense of awe fresh. After speaking to a pilot about the experience of night flight, he writes: “It was as if he had revealed something intimate to me … a realm of poetry accessible only to those whose world-view is based on technology, knowledge and calculation rather than wideeyed wonder.”
In one of the final chapters, as Dyer anticipates the end of his visit, he reflects on Tom Wolfe’s celebrated 1975 essay The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie, also about life aboard an aircraft carrier. Dyer, in awe of Wolfe’s work, suffers a crisis of confidence in his own writing. He likens himself to a veteran pilot who is no longer up to the task. A pilot “who is so convinced that this time he’s going to slam into the fantail that he comes in too high, misses all the arresting wires and bolts”.
But Dyer needn’t have worried. A veteran of launches and landings in obscure places, he brings this delightful journey to an end smoothly. But, never one to be predictable, it’s a smooth landing in a surprise location.
The aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush; author Geoff Dyer, inset