A grab-bag of critical essays, reportage and personal stories from the irrepressibly curious Dyer (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, 2009, etc).
The title of this hefty tome, featuring pieces published in two United Kingdom–only collections, suggests ponderous philosophizing. But though Dyer takes his art seriously, his prose is as relaxed and self-effacing as it is informed. Indeed, the title essay is about nothing more serious than his quest for a decent doughnut and cappuccino in New York City, from which he extracts some surprising insights about our need for routines, standards and sense of home. Though the book is wide-ranging, his command is consistent, whether he’s writing about Richard Avedon or model airplanes. Dyer consistently expresses an appreciation for the way the idiosyncratic human being emerges despite our best efforts to suppress it. That’s evident in the way he admires John Cheever’s confessional journals more than his acclaimed short stories, and in his urge to uncover F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tragic personal history when writing about his novels. It also shows in the subjects he chooses to write about. Consistently suspicious of slickness in art, he’s drawn to photographers like Enrique Metinides, who documented disasters and accidents in Mexico City, and musicians like John Coltrane, whose “My Favorite Things” grows more appealing to Dyer the more decoupled it becomes from its Rodgers and Hammerstein source. In a few pieces, particularly in his first-person reportage, Dyer works a bit too hard to find something clever to say about subjects he wouldn’t have pursued were he not assigned to write about them—e.g., a Def Leppard concert or a flight in a decommissioned MiG. Also, a handful of book reviews are brief piecework of only moderate interest. But the book is chock-full of Dyer at his most open, thoughtful and lyrical, as in his study of photographs of Rodin sculptures, his appreciation of Rebecca West’s neglected travel writings and a candid piece about the first time he was fired, where, in exposing his 20-something childishness, he finds the roots of the adult he became.
Whether in sketches or rigorous studies, each piece bears the mark of Dyer’s unique intelligence and wit.