AN AMIABLE ACCOUNT OF TWO WEEKS SPENT ON AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER.
Though he often writes about his own self-doubt, Geoff Dyer’s corpus is a testament to confident generalism. He has written books about jazz, World War I, photography, film and D.H. Lawrence (sort of), always driven, if anxiously, by the conviction that a gnawing interest will compensate for a lack of specialized expertise.
Dyer’s novels, too, fit this pattern: They’re compelling and often beautifully structured, but they rarely evince a novelist’s traditional aptitude for, say, plot or richly imagined characters. (If you want to devote your spring to Dyer, Graywolf Press this month is issuing a slightly revised version of the Englishman’s 1989 debut novel, “The Colour of Memory,” as well as his second novel, “The Search,” not previously published in the United States.)
So, in standard form, Dyer isn’t exactly qualified to write “Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush.” Well into his account of two weeks spent on a U.S. aircraft carrier in the fall of 2011, he admits that “of all the kinds of writer I was not, ‘reporter’ was top of the list.” By that point he has noted several facts that he failed to catch or have clarified, so the reader is familiar with his reportorial deficiencies. Neither is he a military historian or a political theorist. And, of course, two chaperoned weeks is only two chaperoned weeks.
He does, however, enter the assignment with a lifelong interest in military aviation, a long-term attraction to certain aspects of American culture, and, most important, a great store of wit, honesty and observational acuity. Like many of Dyer’s books, “Another Great Day” seems at once minor and remarkable.
Augmented by Chris Steele-Perkins’ photos, the book consists of short chapters on various aspects of life on the enormous carrier. He dines with the captain, hears out the religious and political convictions of a retiring lieutenant commander and jokes with the pilots. (“ ‘Two-man planes are a pilot and a piece of self-loading baggage,’ ” one tells him.) He rides along on a helicopter patrol, offers a patronizing and dismissive account of an African-American chapel service, and describes a “steel beach party” with the infectious enthusiasm he has previously used to describe raves.
Aside from a brief man-overboard scare, nothing harrowingly dramatic occurs during Dyer’s residency, but there’s a definite arc to the book. At least as presented in his books, Dyer is a man frequently at odds with the world and its endless inconveniences, and a man hungry for transcendence. The carrier — with its dodgy food, deafening noise, views of the Arabian Sea and devout crew — offers equal opportunities for dyspepsia and spirituality, optimism and stoicism, and though Dyer’s tone is always casual, he deepens the mood as the book progresses.
Fulsome reverence for U.S. soldiers is the norm, from presidential debates to football games, even as the struggles of some veterans can make such reverence seem superficial. Dyer strikes an effective balance here. He’s sometimes cuttingly satirical, and he questions the purpose of the overall mission, but he’s also in boyish awe of the skills he witnesses, skills markedly distinct from his own. He seems transformed by being around so many “admirable and likable” people, and the tribute he offers them is earnest but never unctuous, light-handed but stirring.
Dylan Hicks is a writer, musician and the author of the novel “Boarded Windows.”