The research is voluminous -- you might say lifelong -- in Roy Blount Jr.'s breathless and all-too-brief travelogue-cum-memoir about the place he calls ''the most nearly European American city and the most nearly African." He first spent a summer there in 1963, working as a newspaper reporter and sleeping in a former slave lodging in the French Quarter.
''I was twenty-one and shy," he writes. ''I have returned, to the best of my recollection, thirty-eight times, for anywhere from two days to three weeks."
Not that he really knows the place.
''I can hear residents already," the humorist and author writes. ''He thinks he can write about N'woilins and never had a Nectar Cream with Cream . . . over by Hansen's or the cannibal salad -- raw beef in it -- at the Magnolia Grill? He thinks he can write about N'wawlins and never saw the Irish throwing cabbages from their St. Patrick's parade and the un-Irish picking them up to take home for supper? He thinks he can write about Noowawlins and can't even figure out how to spell how it's pronounced right?' "
While the previous 12 titles in the Crown Journeys series offer ''walks" in various places, ''Feet on the Street" delivers eight ''rambles" (more the rhetorical and linguistic than the geographic kind) through the landscape, lore, gastronomy, and notable characters of the Big Easy. Rather than the usual catalogue of neighborhoods, Blount's rambles trumpet particular New Orleans characteristics, such as ''Wetness," a key facet of a city that lies below Mississippi River level and where ''it can rain so hard . . . that you expect to see alligators bouncing off the pavement."
He also rambles through ''Oysters," ''Color" (of the city and its people), ''Food," ''Friends," and, not to be denied, ''Desire." Each chapter ends with a little ''lagniappe," the New Orleans custom of giving something extra. You know: what to see at the aquarium, where to get the best oysters, the rudest tale of naked dancing, that kind of stuff.
''New Orleans is my favorite place in the world to ramble," Blount writes. ''Even on those deep-summer days that make a person feel swathed in slowly melting hamfat, New Orleans has always put a spring in my step."
The writing is thick with detail, rich with the color, rhythms, and accents of the city's multilayered cultures, at times aspiring to the cadences of a Creole storyteller or a Dixieland tune. He takes pains to tell you about ''beignets" (square doughnuts without holes), and that a sidewalk is a ''banquette," and how to pronounce it properly, and where to eat alligator cheesecake. And he runs the roster of just about every famous personage who spent time there being born or dying, residing or marrying, having an artistic ''reorientational interlude" or studying voodoo, plus a fair number of the infamous but not famous local characters, not to mention every movie either set, filmed, or based on a book written in New Orleans.
At times, Blount's storytelling gets such a good head of steam that he just rambles right on through from, say, William Faulkner to the Super Bowl to the girl who did the naked oyster dance, and it's all to the good. Then again, he could have kept a better rein on the good old boy stories that ramble on a ways beyond any connection with the city. Indeed, while the final ramble, ''What It Comes Down To," was not in the least uninteresting, the point was a bit impenetrable to this reader.
All in all, Blount makes a solid case for his right to tell us about this eccentric city, which ''is not what it once was, neither the fetid swamp nor the great city nor the readily affordable bohemia. But New Orleans is still itself enough to erase any doubt that it was all the things it has been."
Stephen H. Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.