By R.W. Apple, Jr.
North Point Press, 2005
Travel writing, which seems like a dream job, can in fact be quite grueling. One can hardly blame a writer for stepping outside the hotel, turning right and describing the first thing they see. But for the reader, there's no essence, no flavor, no feel. The classic for me remains a writer who shared her experiences breakfasting at Denny's in Miami Beach, where breakfast choices include empanadas, facturas, churros, and bagels, each a reflection of the community.
To the delightful contrary, Apple has based his guide to forty American cities in years of repeated visits. More than a dutiful recitation of stops, he writes small civic stories with sharp tracings of each city's unique political, economic, and social environment. And because Apple is the best kind of reporter, interested in everything, this book has plenty of essence, flavor, and feel.
And like a good reporter, Apple has good sources, possibly the best. Among others, he gathers journalist Molly Ivins' thoughts on Austin, developer Steve Wynn on Las Vegas, chef Norman Van Aken on Miami, and novelist Ward Just on Chicago, along with the senators and mayors who were part of his beat as a political reporter for the New York Times.
His lede sentences are finely drawn miniatures and he never falls into cliché. Even when bringing up familiar tropes, Apple finds a way to make them fresh. Recalling cultured Boston's proud identification as Beantown, he finds the same pride in simplicity in Florentines who call themselves mangia fagiolis, bean eaters.
The entries are arranged idiosyncratically, not in alphabetical order, but in a rough geographic spiral that begins in Boston and circles out south and west across the Mississippi and the Rockies, eventually ending in Honolulu, with some venturing north into Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.
In his essays, Apple avoids a tedious neighborhood by neighborhood recital of what to see, but creates a more effective single portrait that works in the day trips, people, and places that are part of its culture, from Berry Gordy in Detroit to Thurgood Marshall in Baltimore. Each chapter includes a small and clear map of the essentials, and finishes with a brief list of hotels and restaurants that tend toward the high end. But Apple, a noted trencherman, has no qualms about recommending places like Sonny Bryan's, a cinderblock barbecue shack in Austin or Johnny's Bar in Cleveland where you'll find great linguine in a questionable neighborhood.
In less able hands these would be dry recitations of Chamber of Commerce facts, but Apple weaves them into brisk portraits, gently inserting his own tastes and foibles (primarily a penchant for good and calorie-laden food, which will guide you well.) You'll recognize the places you know and be impressed that he found the cortado in Miami or the collection of Stieglitz photographs at Fisk University in Nashville. Likewise, you'll find yourself interested in places you never found interesting - a Calatrava designed art museum in Milwaukee.
Above all, Apple is an advocate for cites, sympathizing with rust belt decline, chastising federal disinvestment, cheering local improvements, and wondering at the human ability to reinvent and recreate excitement in urban environments. He finds something to like everywhere, marking Minneapolis' matter of fact approach to snow that would paralyze other cities, finding the deep and varied arts community beneath Miami's beach glare, and even finding a bit of dignity and community beneath Las Vegas' glitz.
As you read, your feet will start to itch and you'll start to wonder where you stowed that carry-on bag. This book makes you want to hit the road. To steal a phrase, don't leave home without it.
© 2005 Claudia Kousoulas