How would a skinny English writer known for his non-populist taste in films, recreational drug use, and fussiness about food, cope with life on board a US carrier ship? Would the noise, cheap chow, lack of alcohol, sweaty gym and mess TV blaring out blockbusters prove too much?
No. Although Geoff Dyer found certain aspects of his two weeks as writer-in-residence on board the USS George H.W. Bush made him gnash his imperfect English teeth, he was struck by the kindness, courtesy and decency of everyone, and his childhood passion for aircraft together with his characteristic curiosity about, and interest in, other people, fuelled his enthusiasm.
As two crew members said to him, the lessons of aircraft carriers are written in blood. It's an incredibly hazardous business launching aircraft via a giant catapult, and having them come in to land at great speed onto a deck which, relative to a normal airport runway, is the size of a nouveau cuisine portion of fish. The mechanism for stopping the planes – landing wires, designed to hook the craft and bring it to a lurching halt – do not always snag the plane, which therefore, paradoxically, needs to accelerate as it comes in to land, in case it has to soar upwards and attempt landing again. This means there have been catastrophic incidences of planes mowing down structures or people further up the deck.
One of the myriad joys of reading Dyer is his frankness about aspects of life that many writers don't share. Here, he is hilariously honest about his physique, his age, his lankiness ("my 14 days on the boat were the stoopingest I have ever spent"), his desperation for a single room (and as a frequenter of hospital, I applauded his multitude of excuses for having to have solitude at night), his crush on a female crew member, even his gaseous emissions ("Newell invariably knocked on my door seconds after I'd [farted]. It was almost as if, by breaking wind, I had summoned him.")
Dyer has always been a thoroughly democratic writer, and he expresses admiration for as many lower ranked crew members as higher ones. His account of the speech given by a lieutenant who had won a bravery award being promoted is extremely moving, as is his story about the ambitions of the Captain's cook, who aspires to working in the White House.
The book is stuffed with wonderful anecdotes. Among my favourite was Dyer's revenge on a civilian Texan braggart and businessman who provided crew with steaks for a party but casually, almost jovially, threatened to "pull the lips off" many in his path. Dyer purposefully breaks his plastic cutlery at the party and asks the Texan for metal ones instead as his steak is so tough.
And, of course, it wouldn't be Dyer if there wasn't the sharp self-awareness. If he uses a word that sounds pompous – "insofaras" – he will berate himself more caustically than any reader could. A total delight.Reuse content