I liked precisely half of this book. David Grann chose to structure The
Lost City of Z as two stories interleaved with one another, the even
chapters devoted to one story and the odd chapters jumping over to the other.
This is not an uncommon strategy and it can work beautifullythink Erik Larson's
Devil in the White City or Anne Fadiman's
The Spirit Catches You and Then You Fall Downbut it does have a
built-in risk, namely that the reader will find herself drawn more to one story
than the other, skimming every other chapter in her eagerness to get to the good
stuff. And that's how I experienced this book.
The first, more conventional story is an engrossing, well-paced narrative history of Colonel Percy Fawcett's obsession with finding an ancient, lost city in the uncharted jungle of the Amazon. Fawcett's story is the kind of juicy history that is so fantastic it would never work as fiction. Fawcett's expeditions were unbelievably treacherous and miserable, and they held the promise of so little reward. The kind of man who would embark on them must have been driven by something rare indeed.
Grann does an excellent job of bringing Fawcett's exceptionality to life. All of the other men in his expeditions suffered untold hardships from jungle life, from malaria to espundia (a parasitic disease that dissolves the flesh around the mouth, nose, and limbs), to maggots growing just under the surface of their skin. Think about that for a second. Grann writes that when the biologist James Murray contracted maggots, they "grew as long as an inch, and occasionally poked out their heads from his body, like a periscope on a submarine. It was as if his body were being taken over by the kind of tiny creatures he had studied." Yet Fawcett always remained untouched. He was never injured, never bitten, never infected. It was as if he were designed for some higher purpose, custom engineered to slip through the jungle and see what mere white mortals could not.
The author is liberal with the gory details, which repulsed me and fascinated me in exactly equal proportions. Those are the passages I read aloud to my husband, much to his chagrin. But I also appreciated Grann's attention to the less sensationalist sides of Fawcett's quests, like his studious training at the Royal Geographical Society and his relatively unracist ways of approaching Indians hostile to invading white men. Fawcett's tale, which was new to me, is apparently a story that has been told many times, but Grann conducted original research in archives around the world, uncovering previously private material which adds new depth to the tale.
But that's where the book lost me. The second dimension of Grann's narrative is the story of his own quest for clues about Fawcett's whereabouts, first in archives and then in the jungle, which he tells in the first person and strings out suspensefully like a detective story. This too is a risky authorial strategy which depends on cultivating the reader's trust, either through an utterly beguiling narrative voice, as in Lawrence Wechsler's Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders or Michael Paterniti's Driving Mr. Albert, or through the authority of one's expertise, as in Seth Shulman's The Telephone Gambit. But Grann's voice is flat and uncompelling, and his depiction of his chase after Fawcett raised far more questions in my mind than it answered.
He plays the role of a naïf whose purity of motive opens doors to the Fawcett mystery. For instance, he emphasizes how unfit for the jungle he is ("I have a terrible sense of direction and tend to forget where I am on the subway and miss my stop in Brooklyn"), contrasting starkly with Fawcett and his fearsome competency. Yet he also asks us to trust him as he outfits himself at an outdoor store, flies to Brazil, hires a guide, and penetrates the jungle, with nary a hitch (or a maggot). He contacts one of Fawcett's granddaughters who hesitates, but then hands over Fawcett's logbooks and diaries, something few outsiders have seen. He contacts a reclusive anthropologist working in the Amazon, someone who won't take calls from his own best man, but who talks to Grann by satellite phone and invites him to the native village where he is working. Grann has too many breakthroughs that seem too unearned, so when he gets to the end of his own heroic quest (which I won't spoil by discussing here), his final, glorious epiphany in the jungle left me feeling manipulated. It's hard not to draw the conclusion that Grann has massaged the timeline of his various discoveries in the interest of a blockbuster story.
Ultimately, Grann's strategy doesn't pay off, and it doesn't elevate the book into something more than its subject matter. I will highly recommend this book to anyone I know with an interest in exploration. But this is not a book, like Daniel Everett's Don't Sleep, There are Snakes, that I'll push on everyone I know, whether or not they have an interest in the Amazon. Grann got me interested in Fawcett, but not obsessed. Given the maggots, that's probably a good thing.
Photo: Colonel Percy Fawcett, born 1867
This review was originally published in March 2009, and has been updated for the January 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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