One of the most enviable aspects of Geoff Dyer's intellect is how nomadic it is. With dazzling authority and acuity, he has roamed over subjects as varied and dense as jazz (But Beautiful), photography (The Ongoing Moment), D.H. Lawrence (Out of Sheer Rage), and the perfect doughnut (the title essay of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition). Dyer himself is just as peripatetic, and his appetite for new experiences is the perfect reason to procrastinate on writing about them. When Dyer does get out into the world — as he did hilariously and, ultimately, quite movingly in his 2003 travelogue Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It — there is no greater advocate for the richness of an unbound life.
That might help explain why he is so entertainingly cranky throughout Another Great Day at Sea, his compact diary of the two weeks he spent as a writer-in-residence aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Despite their gargantuan scale, aircraft carriers are, in their airtight confines and industrious energy, the seaworthy equivalent of ant farms — and, as Dyer puts it, "as crowded as a Bombay slum." Every day of their monthslong deployment in the Persian Gulf, lurking suggestively close to Iraq and Iran, 5,000 members of the U.S. Navy clamber over the carrier's "overwhelmingly horizontal" flight deck and scamper through its hellish substratum: a cramped, complex and disorienting maze of interior passageways and hatches. With so many feverish bluejackets at work — and with the airborne fuel and grease of a vessel whose lone purpose is to launch and land screaming jets — keeping things shipshape is essential. "There were always people cleaning," Dyer observes. "Everywhere you went ... sailors were washing, wiping, rinsing, dusting, sweeping, scrubbing, brushing, buffing, polishing, shining."
"Personally," adds the famously rangy Brit, "I spent ... my time on the carrier ducking and diving or, more exactly, ducking and stooping."
Dyer's tour of the boat (that's right: boat, not ship) is as closely monitored as an F-18 sortie, even though it's a relatively stress-free time on the Bush: October 2011, more than a year after President Obama announced the end of America's combat mission in Iraq. Once Dyer inures himself to the 'round-the-clock "crash and thunder" of the in-transit jets and the "aftertaste of the big meats" served in the mess, he's at ease to report on the daily encounters prearranged for him. Each brief chapter gives us a peek into another nook and cranny of the carrier's teeming underworld, or the above-deck "island," "the bridge and assorted flight-ops rooms rising in a stack from one side of the deck: an island on the island of the carrier."
Dyer's mother passed away four months before his trip to sea (his father would die little more than a month after his return), and his observations in the book's early chapters are, for such a sharp-witted writer, uncharacteristically muted. He freely admits to details slipping his grasp. Of course, someone who tosses off references to organic-food guru Alice Waters might understandably be tongue-tied by the sight of a storeroom stacked with six-pound tins of pork and beans.
Visits to the brig and the boat's chapel, to its dentist (where Dyer giddily avails himself of a teeth-cleaning) and claustrophobic gym ("there was also the small matter of every person in it being the size of two people"), yield low-key pleasures. But it's a short time before Dyer hits peak altitude, in a surreal and achingly funny sit-down with the carrier's non compos mentis drug counselor. "Bath salts," she says, citing one of the many make-do intoxicants procured by the boat's more liberal-minded substance abusers. "They inhale it. And then of course you've got the whole inhaling sewage to git the high."
Dyer, no stranger to stimulants, replies, "What?"
"I don't know why. But they do. And then you've got the classic computer cleaner: inhale it. Pen markers. Git the high."
The drug counselor turns out to be an unreliable source in the extreme, but later that night, in his bunk at lights out, Dyer can't rid himself of her deranged patois. In fact, he turns it into a thumping dance track. "I started saying the phrase 'Git the high' and its variant, 'Gittin the high,' over and over, at first chuckling happily to myself and then laughing out loud, gittin' the high just from saying 'gittin' the high.' "
Dyer soars for the rest of the book, which shares sea legs with David Foster Wallace's brilliant cruise-ship essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." As a Brit among so many Americans, Dyer is struck by the ferocity of their national pride and militarism, by their intense brotherhood and embrace of God, by their zeal for "flying the ball" (manning the video game-like controls of a fighter jet), and by the good fortune of even the most unhinged of F-18 pilots, whose night flyovers afford them the kind of celestial, "transcendent experience craved by mystics, shamans, seekers and acidheads."
At the back end of his fortnight-long assignment, Dyer begins to seek solitude on the carrier's surprisingly unpopulated and tranquil fantail, with its hypnotic view of sea and sky. In one of his calm-induced reveries, he contemplates the certitude of his new friends and the Catch-22 of military might. "[One] fantail trance took the form of a kind of mental seasickness," Dyer writes, "whereby the clarity and fixity of the carrier's unquestioned purpose gave rise to feelings — and questions — of purposelessness. Did the presence of these carrier-launched planes in the skies over Iraq accomplish anything at this moment in history? Wasn't it in some ways an unbelievably expensive provocation? Weren't the planes flying missions primarily because the boat was here and because that's what planes do?"
For all the snap and snark in his prose, Dyer can't tamp down his generosity of spirit forever. This unbeliever — in faith, in wayward military action, in bad food and the snorting of bath salts, even in mourning the death of his parents — ends the breezy Another Great Day at Sea with stunning economy and emotional force, and in the most unexpected way. He says a prayer for the men and women of the USS George H.W. Bush — and for all of us at sea.