The wunderkind Geoff Dyer occupies a distinct literary niche. Readers are drawn to his high diction and high-school-rebel carelessness. Many swooned over Out of Sheer Rage, a D.H. Lawrence book about not writing a D.H. Lawrence book that was really about Dyer’s mind. Dyer has helped pioneer the “slacker intellectual” writer personae. He is at once a cutting, erudite Gore Vidal, a humanitarian, globe-trotting Peter Matthiessen, and a drug-puffing, electric Lester Bangs—a motley persona epitomized in his opus Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.
Dyer mimed this aimlessness in his collected travels, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. The disjointedness of Yoga make it perhaps a less successful book than Rage or Human Condition as it strayed confidently into uninteresting indulgences, such as cataloguing Dyer’s sexual exploits. But it ultimately brought together Dyer’s loquacious hats: the critic, the beast-in-the-garden travel writer, the music enthusiast, the cornball memoirist, and the photographic eye.
Dyer readers sometimes forget he is British. He seems to be a species altogether different, a Dyerian. And so this is why Dyer’s travels reveal so much: he is forever the outsider, in whatever culture he finds himself, looking in at other people, himself, and human limitations and possibilities.
With Another Great Day at Sea, Dyer has found a vessel as expansive and idiosyncratic as he is. Great Day follows Dyer for two weeks aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. His mission: to get the goods, get the characters, find the quirks, make them human, and not starve. After a week of queasily slogging through the meat-and-potatoes mess, Dyer, the fastidious gourmand, finds himself gaunt. He writes, “I’d gone from being fit and thin-looking to just a feeble streak of unshouldered manhood… especially now that I was several days into a quasi-hunger strike.”
Dyer paints himself as the always-astonished traveler. He is delighted and horrified by the whistle and destructive awe of jet planes and the carrier’s suctioning (often non-suctioning) toilet system. Dyer’s is surely an exaggerated persona. But the mask is also humbling. However much we may envy Dyer’s globetrotting, we would never trade our peccadilloes for his. Witness his self-conscious discomfort when meeting the crew: “I actually found I’d adopted the physical stance of the monarch-in-the-age-of-democracy (standing with my hands behind my back) and the corresponding mental infirmity: nodding my head as though this brief exchange of pleasantries was just about the most demanding form of communication imaginable.”
Dyer, the human Gumby, must bend himself into a question mark as he tours the ship. Descending through the carrier’s viscera, he extends his comic eye from bulkhead to bulkhead. In one corner are “bombs and bomb parts stacked up everywhere. It was an IKEA of munitions.” Elsewhere is “a woman wearing a pink USS George Bush T-shirt which, as long as you did not inspect it too closely, could have passed muster at a trance party.”
Dyer moves through people rapidly, usually one central character per scene. Some critics have slighted this approach as being shallow. (One Dyer summary: “Chris in particular… had the look of a sausage that had been fried without being pricked, with the attendant risk of bursting.”) But Dyer’s glibness is a natural consequence of the scope of his enterprise — two weeks, 5,000 people, 103,000 tons of ship. Dyer does his best to cover a swath of humanity: from the quick-witted female rear admiral, to the drug counselor, to the kitchen chef, to one of the few female fighter pilots in the world, and down to the lowly, lonely brig guards who are forced to occupy their time tooth-brushing what’s been spic-n-span for weeks because there are no detainees.
Thus the book is a photo album of military Americana—quick and quirky, at times hysterical, and not too macho. Dyer is not encumbered with yawn-inducing American stereotypes. He lives stateside, so he is well situated for this Bush exposé: he manages to eschew the occasional snobbery of a writer like Paul Theroux.
Only one part of Dyer’s memoir feels off-balanced: his jousting, pawing, and feigning toward Tom Wolfe, who wrote his own aircraft carrier essay, “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” which is probably not as well remembered as Dyer fears. Dyer’s attempt to measure up to Wolfe takes the reader away from the carrier and into the narrator’s unrelated insecurities.
Overall, Dyer is a wonderful companion to have: awkward, perceptive, and brash. One moment finds Dyer taken up with the hymns of the small Sunday church service. After sitting through the choir and then the esoteric exegesis of the means of salvation, he notes, “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.”
Is the aircraft carrier a waste of resources? Likely. Is the “carrier” as symbol, the cause of and not solution to America’s foreign threats? Maybe. Probably. Yes. But to harp on that would miss Dyer’s project, the profiling of Americans, many of who sign up for this armored cruise to pay for college or amend problems at home. Dyer is a clear-sighted observer. While making fun of himself, he reveals the tip of America’s mighty military spear to be a conglomerate of vulnerabilities.