Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Books

Review: Geoff Dyer reflects on 'Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush'

A run-of-the-mill writer might describe the flight deck of an American aircraft carrier as being as big as so many football fields. Someone a bit more ambitious might calculate that X number of people could fit on the deck standing shoulder to shoulder. Geoff Dyer's approach is a little different: "How big was it? Impossible to say. It was as big as it was. There was nothing to compare it with."

Dyer, 56, is an adventurous type whose books of fiction and nonfiction have ranged from Venice to Varanasi and Bali to Burning Man. Another Great Day at Sea recounts his two weeks as a civilian visitor aboard the USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf in the fall of 2011.

It is a fish-out-of-water (in the water) tale whose tone might be best summed up by noting that Dyer packed a Ping-Pong paddle for the journey. "After all I'd heard about the size of these carriers I'd assumed there would be an abundance of facilities. … I even had hopes of a tennis court." Reality proved much more cramped for the tall, skinny Briton, who had to constantly beware of banging his head in the maze of passageways.

Dyer's early impression was that the "whole enterprise reeked of oil" — the need for it and the need to go to war to secure it — but foreign policy, the end of "don't ask, don't tell" and the prevalence of sexual assault in the military are touched glancingly, if at all.

Instead, Dyer is more focused on food (mostly not to his liking), his personal comfort (he luckily scored single quarters) and trying not to explode in rage when he can't get an Internet connection. ("I sucked it up.") If this sometimes whiny middle-aged man has a tendency to make everything about himself, he also provides entertaining and at times moving accounts of the lives and duties of men and women aboard the Bush — even if he can't always remember their names or ranks. His admiration for those who do this dangerous work at sea is evident.

And he does manage to scribble down some facts and figures. "Planes came in at 140 mph and stopped in 108 feet (or just over a second)." Also, "There was 2,200 feet of cable with a breaking strength of 215,000 pounds" — enough to stop a 747. In a book where metaphors and similes could easily run wild, Dyer deploys them sparingly and to good effect: "Like a buffalo brought down by a lion who then summons the rest of her pride to tuck in, an F-18 was being pecked, prodded and taken apart by a gang of mechanics and engineers."

It's hard not to like a writer who can admit that, in talking to crew members about a man-overboard emergency, he comes armed "with my knack for idiotic pleasantry, anchored in zero knowledge."

The ship's routines and drills meant there was "never a dull moment," yet "an endless succession of dull moments." Nothing dull about Dyer, though.

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