Okay… so I have just finished Jay Herring’s book, The Truth About Cruise Ships: A Cruise Ship Officer Survives the Work, Adventure, Alcohol, and Sex of Ship Life. If you are among the three people who visited yesterday’s post, you may already have an inkling of how today’s review is going to go. It may surprise one or all three of you that my mind has changed slightly since I posted yesterday.
Mr. Herring kind of redeemed himself somewhat toward the end of the book. Now, instead of feeling repulsed and disgusted by his stories of drunken debauchery while working as a computer specialist on Carnival cruise ships, I’m left feeling more ambivalent about his story. I still take a dim view of a lot of his behavior when he worked for Carnival Cruise Line, but I was heartened to see that he recognized that he’d grown up a lot during his time working on ships. That’s a good thing. On the other hand, reading the book still kind of made my skin crawl. Allow me to explain, as I delve into my review of The Truth About Cruise Ships.
Who is Jay Herring and why did I read his book?
Sometime in the early 00s, Jay Herring was a regular college graduate living with his parents near Dallas, Texas. He’d had a land based job he hated, fixing computers. He told his boss that he didn’t enjoy his job and was looking for a new role. Two months later, his boss laid him off, and he moved back in with his parents for the second time since college. He needed to find a new job– preferably one that would get him out of his parents’ house.
After unsuccessfully looking for gainful employment for three months, Herring had a brain storm. He could be a bartender on a cruise ship. This idea came to him even though he’d never seen a cruise ship, let alone taken a cruise as a passenger. Nevertheless, he found himself on Carnival Cruise Line’s website, scouring career opportunities. He noticed an opening for “shipboard I/S manager”. The idea of traveling, leaving the boring 9-5 lifestyle, and moving out of his parents’ house really appealed to him.
Herring filled out an online application; then he later found out who the hiring manager was and sent his resume directly to him. The manager interviewed him on the phone for five minutes, then told him about some of the unusual conditions of the job, such as working for eight months straight, then getting a mandatory eight week vacation. Although the lengthy vacation requirement was odd to Herring, he was still interested. The manager invited him to Miami for an in person interview, where he learned even more about the job and what it would entail. He learned that most people who work on cruise ships end up drinking and smoking to excess; he’d have to carry a pager 24/7; and eventually, the ship would feel like a prison.
Still okay with those conditions, Herring reiterated that he was still interested in working for Carnival. Two months later, Herring got the job; with it, he also got a tiny shared cabin with bunk beds, an officer’s uniform, which later came with epaulets, and raging drinking and sex habits. At the beginning of the book, Jay Herring explains that he was a “nice guy”, who was saving himself for marriage to the “right” woman. When he boarded his first cruise ship as a brand new officer in charge of computers, he was practically a virgin who hadn’t had sex for 12 years. By the time he quit working for Carnival, he was practically a manwhore. I know I probably shouldn’t use that term, but that’s a pretty accurate way to describe what happened. Even Herring admits it; he’d become a man with far fewer inhibitions and qualms having meaningless sex with almost anyone who suggested it.
I have read a number of books written by people who have worked on cruise ships. One book that immediately comes to mind is Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline, by Brian David Bruns. Indeed, Mr. Herring credits Bruns in his acknowledgments. I reviewed Bruns’ book for Epinions.com and reposted it on my travel blog. Now that I’m looking at that reposted Epinions review from 2011, I see that I actually read and reviewed Jay Herring’s book before I read Bruns’ book. Incredibly enough, I had completely forgotten that I’d read Mr. Herring’s story before. This is unusual for me; I normally remember the books I’ve read, even if I don’t like them.
It’s kind of telling that I completely forgot about having already read Herring’s story. However, based on what I wrote in my review of Bruns’ book about working for Carnival, I seem to have liked Herring’s book the first time I read it, as it led me to read Bruns’ (vastly superior) book. But, in my defense, I did read the Kindle version of Herring’s book sometime around 2011. That was a long time ago, and I’ve downed a lot of booze since then. I’m sure I’ve killed some brain cells, even if I seem to have matured since 2011.
What I didn’t like about The Truth About Cruise Ships…
To be honest, I was pretty disgusted by many of Herring’s stories. He often came off like a shallow creep, as he described how he was constantly looking to hook up with the women who worked on cruise ships with him. At the beginning of the book, he wrote about how he’d been a “nice guy”, although he seemed a bit shallow. But, within his first days on his first ship, he was propositioned by a woman from Trinidad and Tobago. He turned her down, but it wasn’t long before he’d become a lot more willing to have sex with anyone who offered. At the same time, he worried about catching diseases and causing pregnancies, so he wisely used condoms… until he tried having sex without one and realized it was much nicer for him. After awhile, he worried less about sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies.
Below are a few samples from the book that I found kind of gross. They aren’t necessarily the worst anecdotes; they’re just snippets that I thought to highlight. Maybe you can see what I’m referring to when I comment on how gross some of the “truth” is…
Herring was in his late 20s when he was working for Carnival, but he came off as much younger and less mature. He had what seemed like a shallow and selfish attitude toward women, reducing to warm beings who should be “hunted” for his own gratification. It was depressing to read about it, especially given that a lot of the people he wrote of were married– sometimes even to other people on the ship. Combine this gross attitude toward women and sex with extreme booze drinking, and you quickly turn into someone who is very unappealing.
I might be able to overlook this distasteful and sleazy aspect of Herring’s book if the writing had been stronger, but I didn’t find Herring’s writing especially compelling. It was serviceable enough, but he doesn’t have a flair for story writing like fellow former Carnival officer Bruns does. Bruns also comes off as a much nicer person than Herring does, and keeps his stories a lot more tasteful. Most people can learn how to write in a competent way, but there’s also an art to writing well. It takes talent and empathy. I didn’t get the sense that Herring had much of either.
What I liked about The Truth About Cruise Ships…
I do think Herring’s book offers an interesting look at what it’s like to work on cruise ships. So many people take cruises and have no concept of what it’s like to live on one. Beneath the passenger areas, there’s a whole underworld where the people who make the ship work are living their lives.
Some of the realities of life working on cruise ships are kind of sad. I can almost see why so many people on ships become so fixated on vices like smoking, drinking, and promiscuous sex with practical strangers. The work can be very stressful, depending on the job, and the living conditions are neither private nor comfortable. But for a person from a poor country, the tiny cabins might not be so bad– at least there are hot showers and flushing toilets, and they can make a lot of money that goes far in developing nations.
I appreciated the fact that Herring realized that he was rapidly becoming a scumbag. He was also smart enough to know when he’d had enough of working on ships and went back to a land-based life with his Czech born wife, Mirka, whom he’d met while they were both working for Carnival. I liked how he’d had a chance to realize how Americans come across to people from other countries, and I appreciated that he took the opportunity to travel. I can personally attest to how travel and meeting people from other countries can change your life and your world view. That part of the book was inspiring.
I think Jay Herring benefitted immensely from expanding his horizons by working with people from all over the world. I just wish he’d focused less on the sex and drinking in his story. I don’t think he did his image any favors, especially given that some of the stories seemed kind of juvenile and “Porky’s-esque“. If you were around in the 1980s, you probably have an inkling of what I write.
I know Herring is conscious of image, since he writes about it in his book. That was another thing I liked less– that he would go into a pseudo-philosophy mode at times, offering some half-baked theories on human nature, some of which didn’t seem very insightful to me. Given how casual he was regarding his health and basic decency when he worked for Carnival, it seemed ridiculous that he was including these lofty passages about his theories on life. He’d go from writing about hooking up with some woman he barely knew, to some theory about human nature. It just came off as disingenuous to me.
In the end, I didn’t hate the book as much as I thought I did yesterday. But I do think there are much better books about cruise ship life out there. I see the Kindle version of The Truth About Cruise Ships is apparently no longer available. I’m not sure I’d recommend paying for the paperback version, but I can also see that some people on Amazon enjoyed the book. So if you think you would, go for it… and leave me a comment on what you think. Personally, I’m glad to move on to another book now. I don’t think I’ll be reading this book a third time.
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