It’s notoriously difficult to categorize what, exactly, it is that Geoff Dyer does. Obviously, he writes with considerable skill on subjects ranging from art photography to the dearth of decent doughnuts in the New York metropolitan area. You certainly can get away with calling him a cultural critic, since Otherwise Known As the Human Condition did win the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. But to call Dyer a journalist may begin a descent on a perilous slope ending at “reporter,” and you can tell he doesn’t quite like that word.
“The longer I spent on the carrier the more convinced I became that, of all the kinds of writer I was not, ‘reporter’ was top of the list,” he writes in Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, an essayistic exploration cum love letter to the behemoth, subtitular American aircraft carrier and its dedicated crew. Dyer, an Oxford-educated Briton, stowed aboard the good ship, which is the length of three football fields, with Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins. The duo were commissioned by Writers in Residences, a non-profit organization that deploys such pairs with the aim of producing careful book-length considerations of modern institutions—a suspiciously reportorial aim.
“We could debate journalism, but the one thing I’m actually sure I’m not is a reporter, and one of the reasons is because lots of the writing process is boring, but conveying facts and information—I find that so boring and, of course, as a reporter, that’s what you’re meant to do,” says Dyer, who proclaims a greater affinity for the ways of Norman Mailer and Ryszard Kapuściński. “It emerged before [Kapuściński’s] death that his reporting was far from reliable, but in a way that doesn’t diminish my love of his writing, because always what I’ve loved in Kapuściński as much as the depiction of what happens are those wonderful, incredible metaphysical and political digressions. I really feel an affinity with that, even though those are the things that are absolutely anathema to the craft of reporter as traditionally defined.”
A lack of definition frees Dyer to offer a much more subjective, companionable story in Another Great Day at Sea. It’s easy to emphasize with him as narrator, the second-tallest person crammed into miles’ worth of claustrophobic hallways. “My fourteen days on the boat were the stoopingest I have ever spent,” writes Dyer, who diligently avoids head bonks and hand-in-hatch injuries. That he wheedles his own bunk, rare palatable fare from the captain’s table and a free dental cleaning are added endearments.
Dyer is an often funny, occasionally sentimental, ever critical guide. He extends observations of beauty on the flight deck—where planes slow from 140 to zero mph a matter of seconds after catching a wire—to the ugly implications of the comings and goings. “For the beauty of this performance was inseparable from its setting and function. The elaborate, hypnotic choreography on display was devoted entirely to safety, to the safe unleashing of extreme violence. Violence not just in terms of what happened hundreds or thousands of miles away where the planes were headed, but here, where the immense forces required for launch were kept under simmering control,” he writes.
That such a highly controlled environment allowed this seemingly unprecedented access is its own little marvel. “When I first chose it I thought there was very little chance of it happening, and then it actually proved to be incredibly simple—from my point of view it required zero effort,” he says. “But probably, like a swan beneath the placid surface, there was quite a lot of frantic paddling going on to get me aboard.” The greater wonder is, of course, the thing itself: all $6.2 billion dollars of it, maintained by additional American tax dollars. “I think people need to know about places where decisions are being made. I felt it was all rather straightforward what was going on—it’s not like there was anything underhanded going on here—but I think it’s a place that Americans would be very” surprise by, Dyer says. “On the one hand, the people are great, they’re amazing, and they’re utterly committed to this idea of service. On the other hand, when you’re on the boat the cost of it is stupendously apparent, and it’s good for people to ask if this is really how they want their money spent.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.