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Travels of a slacker who’s going nowhere -- slowly

Special to The Times

The bizarre world of tourism. The experience of putting down temporary roots in foreign places. The latent potential for adventure among timid people.

Such is the terrain explored by London novelist and wry essayist Geoff Dyer (“Out of Sheer Rage”) in his collection of travel-related personal essays, “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.” Poking fun at New Age-type existential seeking, the book humorously limns Dyer’s opposing bias toward total sloth, while brushing the surface of the emotionally dense material at the heart of his stories.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 15, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Yoga book -- The review of Geoff Dyer’s book “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It” in Tuesday’s Calendar mistakenly said that the Burning Man festival is in the Arizona desert. It is in the Nevada desert.

Spanning two decades of the author’s life (from his late 20s to the present day), the 11 essays take readers in search of pinnacle occurrences in locations both exotic and prosaic: New Orleans, Indonesia, Amsterdam, Rome, Libya, Cambodia, Detroit, and Burning Man’s Black Rock City, an annual gathering spot in the Arizona desert. More often than not, what Dyer finds in his travels is nothing of note, but he writes of the nothing he encounters with wit and erudition. Much time and energy is spent, for example, getting lost, sitting around, pondering (and yet failing to do) the things he dreams of, like leaping into waterfall pools in Bali, hopping freight train cars that slow to a near crawl, and planning films in Rome he’ll never make.

Viewing his (non)adventures through the lens of great thinkers and poets, Dyer’s “Yoga” is the antithesis of a self-help book, a narrative in which simply contemplating action is the central theme. He waxes poetic about his sandals, for example, (“I bought a pair of Tevas that fit my feet like a glove, like a glove on each foot -- which means, I suppose, that they fit like socks”) and bemoans the loss of his sunglasses with great vigor, demonstrating all the while the metaphysical benefits of his yoga-free nonchalance.

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At times, he reveals intriguing sparks of intensity beneath the humor. He writes, for instance, of living in New Orleans in his 20s and making friends with Donelly, a young man who had previously attempted suicide. Together, they joke about how many bullets one should have on hand for a gun to be worthwhile. “ ‘What is the use of a gun with only two bullets?’ I said, getting the hang of gun talk and really quite enjoying it.” This banter takes place in a touching account of two somewhat lost men forming a tentative, temporary bond in an unfamiliar city. Eventually, Dyer loses touch with Donelly. “He could be in L.A., he could be anywhere,” Dyer ends the essay. “Chances are, he has blown his brains out by now.”

Similar flashes of depth, in which Dyer deftly mixes comic mishaps with great poignancy, are intimated throughout. “The Rain Inside,” for instance, describes Dyer’s own emotional unraveling: “Every day was scattered into a million pieces. A day was not made up of 24 hours but of 86,400 seconds, and these did not flow into one another -- did not build, as letters do, into words and sentences -- so that, as a consequence, there was not enough time to get anything done.” Readers cringe and laugh in recognition, waiting for Dyer to dig deeper into this fertile terrain; he doesn’t. Like the train he doesn’t hop, the film he doesn’t make and the yoga positions he won’t assume, Dyer can’t be bothered.

Instead, he ducks back into yet another comic misadventure, most of which are typically made worse (and, therefore, in Dyer’s worldview, more funny) by his affinity for illegal drugs and psychedelics. He writes of eating psychedelic mushrooms in Amsterdam, wandering the streets in the rain with two friends, “Amsterdam Dave,” who “was committed to making it a truly memorable weekend in the sense that he would remember nothing whatsoever about it,” and a girl named “Dazed.” Dyer is so wasted he wears his pants inside-out for hours because he’s unable to sort out how trousers actually work. “Skunk,” likewise, tells of Dyer’s misfortune in Rome getting a beautiful woman high on “skunk,” which he calls “very strong grass,” only to have her grow angry because she hadn’t aspired to such an altered and paranoid state. Dyer must negotiate her anger on the streets of this foreign city though he himself is quite stoned.

Dyer’s stories combine laugh-out-loud, bad-boy adventures with a melancholic and fatalistic undercurrent, in which humor and drugs are used to lessen the pain of existential reality.

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“I lacked purpose and direction and had even less idea of what I wanted from life now than I had when I was 20 or 30,” he confides in a somber moment looking at Italian ruins, a moment that seems to encapsulate much of the book’s moody core. “I was well on the way to becoming a ruin myself, and that was fine by me.”


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