This is the cranky travel book only a self-confident author could pull off. Let's start with the title. "White Sands" evokes an exotic beach or at least a scenic area of topography. What it is, though, is a stretch of Hwy. 54 between Alamogordo, N.M., and El Paso, Texas, where author Geoff Dyer and his wife pick up a hitchhiker. They ride along amiably until Dyer becomes aware of a highway sign warning drivers not to pick up anyone because of "Detention Facilities in Area." Whatever beauty they may have noticed in the sands turns dark and muddy.
The point in this book is that travel is best thought of not as adventure or vacation; it is to have no point at all. It's not to see anything surprising or gorgeous. One place is as good as another because it's different from home (or the same). Even in Tahiti, visiting the places Gauguin lived, Dyer looks at the exploitation that even painterly appropriation rides on. The author remarks that the secular pilgrimage is easily disappointing.
He realizes "that my enormous capacity for disappointment was actually an achievement, a victory. The devastating scale and frequency of my disappointment … was proof of how much I still expected and wanted from the world, of what high hopes I still had of it." That sounds false somehow. I also don't see that "we are here to go somewhere else." That seems to me a modern, middle-class, modish conceit.
Dyer does perk up an interest in some of those other places, notably the giant earth art of the 1970s, such as Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, built entirely of urban junk; Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, which appears and disappears in the Great Salt Lake, and Walter de Maria's Lightning Field. You can't experience art like this in space only; time is a key ingredient. Another feature is the fact that it refers to nothing other than being man-made. Maria's installation of 400 polished steel poles "referred to nothing other than itself. … There was no intended relation between the poles and the position of the sun, the transit of Venus or lunar eclipses."
And then comes "Northern Dark," Dyer's voyage to see the Northern Lights. Satisfyingly, he never catches a glimpse, although other people tell him they're visible. "We had had the experience of a lifetime but it was not the experience that we had hoped for; it was like a lifetime of disappointment compressed into less than a week."
One of the obligatory stops on a middle-class journey is the visit to the Great Person's house. And what famous writer's, artist's or musician's abode, or even movie star's mansion, does Dyer seek out in Southern California, where he has resettled from England? Well, it's the home of Theodor Adorno, German thinker and adviser to Thomas Mann on the musician character of Dr. Faustus. There may be five or six intellectuals left in the U.S. who read, much less use him in their work. Gotcha!
There are a number of interesting factoids and Dyer's usual fluid, intelligent style. But I am baffled by the meaning of it all. The book seems an unnecessary journey.
Brigitte Frase is a critic in Minneapolis and a past winner of the Nona Balakian citation for excellence in reviewing given by the National Book Critics Circle.