YOGA FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN'T BE BOTHERED TO DO IT

By Geoff Dyer

Pantheon. 257 pp. $22 Now in his early forties, Geoff Dyer is a self-described "intellectual who had nothing intelligent to say about -- and little interest in -- anything except nightclubs and smoking dope." This at first glance appears to be true, since Dyer does spend a lot of time in clubs and does take a deep drag whenever the opportunity presents itself, but no one whose intellectual horizons are as limited as that could produce a book as good as this. "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It" is observant, funny and in unexpected ways affecting, the work of a writer who knows a lot more than night life and grass.

One thing Dyer knows a lot about, for example, is the resorts of Southeast Asia, where he has hung out with the idle young of just about every known nationality. At one of these, a place called the Sanctuary, he was invited to play backgammon: "I explained that I didn't like to do anything that involved concentrating. I didn't even do yoga. I was practically the only person who didn't. A lot of people did yoga even when they weren't actually doing it. They were always stretching or bending or just sitting in quite demanding positions. Everyone had perfect posture and walked as if gravity were an option rather than a law. I wished I'd been doing yoga for years -- in fact I'd been wishing I'd been doing yoga for years for years -- but I was incapable of starting. I ended up not even reading, just hanging out, smoking grass, or chatting to people."

A few pages later, talking with one of the many attractive and available women who pass through these pages, he says he has "an idea for a self-help book," to be called "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It," to which the woman, knowing her man, says, "But you can't be bothered to write it, right?" and to which he in turn responds, "You stole my punch line." But here it is, a book about yoga that has absolutely nothing to do with yoga -- unless you count not doing it -- but that has plenty else.

Dyer is British, in thrall to the wanderlust and exotic places to which his countrymen have been susceptible for so many centuries. The book, he says, "is a ripped, by no means reliable map of some of the landscapes that make up a particular phase of my life. It's about places where things happened or didn't happen, places where I stayed and things that have stayed with me, places I'd wanted to see or places I passed through or just ended up. In a way they're all the same place -- the same landscape -- because the person these things happened to was the same person who in turn is the sum of all the things that happened or didn't happen in these and other places. Everything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head; by the same token, all the things that didn't happen didn't happen there too."

This is a difficult act to pull off, because it requires a delicate balance between external observation and self-absorption. Dyer writes vividly about alien landscapes and off-the-wall people, but because he always ends up looking inward, the temptations of narcissism are never far away. Yet Dyer doesn't succumb to them. In part this is because he is a genuinely funny writer whom one reads for the sheer pleasure and surprise of it, no matter what happens to be his subject, in part it is because he is a human flypaper to which strange (and strangely appealing) characters can't help attaching themselves, and in part it is because he is -- or certainly seems to be -- completely honest about himself. There may be self-discovery here, but there isn't self-administered therapy.

Dyer's travels begin in New Orleans -- a fine place to begin just about anything, and a hard place to leave -- where he can't find a suitable apartment in the French Quarter and ends up on its fringe, at Esplanade, "in a place with a tiny balcony overlooking a vacant lot which seethed with unspecified threat as I walked home at night," but where nothing happened to him except that he met Donelly, who'd struggled through cancer and mental hospitalization and by that point pretty much didn't give a damn. At the mental hospital, "searching for clues, they asked if he was 'possibly an alcoholic?' " to which Donelly indignantly replied: "I should hope so. After all the time, money and effort I've put into it."

From New Orleans, he moved along to Cambodia -- or at least that's the next chapter in the book. There he was moved to the admission that "all visitors to the developing world, if they are honest, will confess that they are actually quite keen on seeing a bit of squalor: people living on garbage dumps, shantytowns, that kind of thing," but when he encounters it firsthand, his reaction is not world-weary cynicism but, as noted above, a moment of unexpectedly affecting observation: "We had seen plenty of legless children in the course of our time in Cambodia, but this boy touched us to the quick: it was as if the ruined, resilient spirit of Cambodia had suddenly appeared before us. He had a lovely smile. In a country of lovely smiles, where the ability to keep smiling had been more ruthlessly tested than anywhere on earth, where a smile was both a denial of history and a victory over it, his was an amazing smile."

Onward Dyer goes, to Thailand, Holland, France, Italy and back to the United States, in every place finding things and people at (or with) which to laugh but also a kind of epiphany. With one of his many lady friends, he is at the bottom of a waterfall, "engulfed by a landscape that made it possible to believe that even at this late stage the world was an unexplored wilderness, vast, unmappable, full of wonder: an Eden whose size alone ensured there was no possibility of expulsion."

Throughout all this, Dyer stays in touch with his inner self, but hardly in a way that will offend those of us who take an unkind view of public navel-gazing. The book can be viewed, if one is of a mind to do so, as the testament of a man who is coming to the reluctant discovery that quite of a sudden he is no longer young. "When I was younger I had a predatory attitude to women," he writes, "but these days I could no longer bear the exertion, the stress, the single-mindedness it required. I was trying to be passive, to put myself at the mercy of events rather than willing them to happen." Looking at himself with a cold eye, he sees someone in danger of losing purpose, discipline and ambition and, more's the pity, doesn't much care. Drawn over and over again to ruins, he realizes that "I was well on the way to becoming a ruin myself, and that that was fine by me."

Precisely how seriously this is to be taken is for each reader to decide, but here's something to keep in mind: Books as good as this one rarely get written by people who don't care.