The Discriminating Traveler’s Guide to
40 Great Cities in the United States and Canada.

By R.W. Apple Jr.
North Point Press. 448 pp. $22.50.

In high school I suffered from a case of unrequited admiration; a favorite teacher barely knew my name. Erudite and larger-than-life, he stood out easily in a place that was so distinctively unexceptional. His stately gait was accompanied by the rhythmic clacking of a cane, his voice was prone to oratorical flourishes and he characteristically wore a three-piece suit. Best of all, he told great stories–or rather, great tangential epics.

How could I resist the charm of this venerable anecdotist? (Never mind that his stories were spiced with embellishment, self-aggrandizement and overt fabrication.) Describing trips to Egypt or Amsterdam, he’d play Baedeker, recommending must-see stops and recalling the grand personalities he met along the way. I relished being his passive companion (even if the travel was secondhand), which is perhaps why I became such an avid reader of R.W. Apple Jr. in the New York Times. Beyond his elegant prose and infallible instinct, Apple is an ideal cicerone: He has the knowledge of a connoisseur and the curiosity of an amateur; his tone is conversational rather than pedantic; and he unabashedly expresses enthusiasm when something strikes his fancy.

R.W. Apple Jr. (Raymond Walter, known universally as Johnny, apparently called ‘Juanito’ by President Bush) has worked at the Times since 1963 reporting on war and politics. Though he’s covered nine presidential elections and filed from more than 100 countries, his recent incarnation as an associate editor has allowed him to write on culture, travel and, especially, food. Among reporters Apple stories abound; they circulate like tale-tales, growing successively more absurdist in their account of his staggering expense account or prodigious appetite. He’s the stuff legends are made of–flamboyant, abrasive and incredibly talented.

In his latest book Apple’s America: The Discriminating Traveler’s Guide to 40 Great Cities in the United States and Canada, the author puts his varied interests to good use. Art, politics, culture, sports, architecture, food and business all factor into his cityscapes. A sequel to Apple’s Europe, the book evolved from a series of articles written for the Times–which explains why New York is regrettably omitted. To navigate these urban communities, Apple enlisted an impressive roster of guides, including Tim Russert in Buffalo, Jimmy Carter in Atlanta, Paul Sarbanes in Baltimore and John McCain in Phoenix. Each city receives its own succinct and effusive chapter.

Despite the book’s title, it’s a mistake to call Apple’s America a travel guide. The tourist looking for practical tips, detailed maps, and budget lodging and dining options would be disappointed. The hotel and restaurant listings are geared toward the high-end set; the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons rank as Apple’s perennial favorites. Though Apple’s America would make ideal background reading for a metropolitan excursion, the book’s real value is less pragmatic. Apple’s essays are remarkable portraits of many of the most interesting American cities. They evoke each locale’s essence, pace and local flavor. They focus on neither the atramentous spots nor the shiny beacons of each city; instead Apple writes about historical pasts and present-day realities. Crime, pollution, urban sprawl and unemployment are frankly discussed. Art is featured prominently in many of the city-portraits, reflecting the importance of culture in the revival of American cities. Local government is critically appraised; the mayors who have successfully inspired urban renewal are lauded.

Who could better synthesize each city’s history, politics and culture in roughly 10 pages than R.W. Apple Jr.? At the Times, Apple is known as a master at writing a kind of news-analysis piece known as a Q-head, which provides historical context for a newsworthy event. Few can match his skill. For example, when the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999, Apple was called at six in the evening to write a “not since Versailles” Q-head. Calvin Trillin described what transpired in his 2003 profile of Apple in the New Yorker: “Apple, pointing out that his stepdaughter’s rehearsal dinner was to take place at seven-thirty, berated Rosenthal for making such a request at such a time, and, an hour later, filed a Q-head. It was written in clear English. It had historical references to SALT II and the Panama Canal treaties and the tension between Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge during the formation of the League of Nations. It was one thousand one hundred and seventy-one words long. Eleven of those words were, like a tip of the hat to Rosenthal, ‘Not since the Versailles Treaty was voted down in November 1919…'” This expertise is reflected in Apple’s America, which is unsurprisingly comprehensive.

The lagniappe of the book, though, is Apple’s keen and witty insight: Atlanta is “a city without a historic core, a city in constant evolution–a Deep South version, you might say, of Los Angeles”; “People would rather die than honk” in Seattle; “Like a dowager in decline, Buffalo still has good bones to remind people of her more prosperous and glamorous days”; of Las Vegas, Apple writes, “Sin sells. Sin is fun.” So is reading his book.