Review by New York Times Review
WHAT drove the British, from the start of the age of empire to its closing chapters in the 20th century, to all corners of the globe? Was it money, glory, adventure, or was it the dismal reality of their isles? Were they fueled by the simple need to get as far from Nottingham and Bath as possible, away from the cold gray rain? Was a craving for color the wind at their back? (Ambition belongs to those with a taste for citrus who live in a land where no citrus is grown.) The quest grew increasingly frenzied as the age ripened and there seemed ever fewer places to explore. As economists say, scarcity creates demand. This era was a moment ago yet seems ancient; the names of its heroes ring like names in a fairy tale: Richard Burton, Ernest Shackleton, David Livingstone. Some of the most daring converged on the Amazon, where hunter-gatherers still lived on human brains and even the most gaudy human creations were swallowed by vines if left for a week. In his outstanding new book, "The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon," David Grann tells the story of one of these adventurers, Percy Fawcett, "the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass and an almost divine sense of purpose." Fawcett was born in Devon, England, in 1867. In photos, he looks like the hero of a Saturday morning serial, the man who falls out of a plane and lands in a haystack. He got the jones for exploring, which, back then, you could catch like a fever, while stationed with the Royal Artillery in Ceylon. An officer had given him a note turned up by a local, which, in the life of Fawcett, serves the same function as the map in "Treasure Island." "Beneath these rocks is a cave," it read, "once easy to enter, but now difficult to approach as the entrance is obscured by stones, jungle and long grass. . . . In that cave is a treasure . . . [of] uncut jewels and gold to an extent greater than that possessed of many kings." Fawcett did not find that particular treasure, but was hooked by the notion of treasure hunting in general. The rest of his life was one long quest. His mishaps and triumphs were followed by would-be adventurers around the world. An entry from his diary provided the germ of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel "The Lost World." Fawcett worked with the British Geographical Society, which was in the process of mapping the globe. On his first trip into the Amazon in 1906, he was charged with fixing the border between Brazil and Bolivia. "By then, most of the world had been explored," Grann writes, "its veil of enchantment lifted, but the Amazon remained as mysterious as the dark side of the moon." Fawcett emerged nearly a year later, gaunt but exhilarated, with a taste for the forest, its solitude and its menace. It became an addiction like heroin: transcendent at first, increasingly consuming, ultimately fatal. In the course of his travels, Fawcett heard whispers of a kingdom, a civilization overgrown and forgotten. He began spotting clues everywhere, in the customs of the Indians, in oral histories and legends. He took to calling it, no one knows why, the City of Z, which, when stripped of pseudoscience, revealed itself to be El Dorado, the fabled city of gold chased after by conquistadors since 1541, when Gonzalo Pizarro took hundreds of men into the jungle and emerged months later with a few dozen walking corpses. In his quest for Z, Fawcett became a living symbol, the British officer, at the end of the British age, in search of a ruined empire, thus a glimpse of his own nation's fate. Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker, tells two stories: of the explorer chasing his mirage, and of the reporter chasing the explorer chasing his mirage - twin obsessions spun together like strands on a helix. Fawcett going here and there to raise money for his next escapade, Grann going after him, from Brooklyn to the Amazon, like going from Paris to the moon. "Let me be clear," Grann writes. "I am not an explorer or an adventurer. I don't climb mountains or hunt. I don't even like to camp. I stand less than 5 feet 9 inches tall and am nearly 40 years old, with a blossoming waistline and thinning black hair." The book is screwball, in other words, a hybrid in which the weak, fear-wracked reporter from the present age confronts the crazed iron men of yore, citizens of a country as grand and gone as the kingdom of the Incas. The result is a powerful narrative, stiff lipped and Victorian at the center, trippy at the edges, as if one of those stern men of Conrad had found himself trapped in a novel by García Márquez. Along the way, Grann examines dozens of subjects that seem more and more mythical, suggesting a kind of magical non-fiction - the myth of the white Indian, for example, the fate of explorers who vanished searching for Fawcett, the habits of carnivorous fish, some which latch on to and live off the holiest, most tender of human organs. But in the end, the book is mostly about the jungle itself, the real and shrinking wilderness that can be traversed on Google maps, but also the wilderness as a metaphor that can be glimpsed but never charted - the world as it really is, where everything wants to infect you and even flowers want you dead. Which is why Fawcett, in his relentless drive into the bush, supposedly in pursuit of a goal but really going because going is the same as being alive, is a stand-in for all those who keep feeding themselves to the beast. This is what Grann means when he writes of his own magazine stories: "They typically have one common thread: obsession. They are about ordinary people driven to do extraordinary things - things that most of us would never dare - who get some germ of an idea in their heads that metastasizes until it consumes them." At times, and perhaps it's a natural outgrowth of the subject, the book can become tedious, in the way that an obsessed person can become tedious. It's hot in the weeds where the sun beats down. I suppose it's how the guides felt as they followed Fawcett through miles of undifferentiated jungle. Chapters follow a predictable pattern - many begin with the same trick: a line of dialogue backed by a quick establishing shot - with sections on Fawcett, then sections on Grann, then on Fawcett, until the whole thing, strung together, comes to resemble a friendship bracelet. As for the prose, it's a bit like the cinematography in a Sydney Pollack film - so deft it's invisible, at total service to the story, but with none of the tracking or crane shots or wild flights of fancy that linger in the mind. Fawcett disappeared in 1925. In the final pages, which are terrifically exciting, the book reads like an adventure story for boys, the sort that is accompanied by drawings of diamond skulls and scorpion kings. Grann follows his subject all the way to an Indian village in a remote region called the Xingu, where he meets probably the last person to see the explorer alive. (Grann thinks he found the remnants of Z, but you can be the judge of that.) The Indians tell Grann what they've been telling the others who started hunting for Fawcett almost as soon as he disappeared: the white man went over the hill and never came back. In the end, "The Lost City of Z" has the odd effect of making the present age seem small, its heroes like museum miniatures. They had explorers who blazed trails, we have journalists who follow trails already blazed in search of explorers. They had parchment and clues. We have GPS and Google maps, where the blank areas hide military installations. Which makes sense. When you can buy a pineapple in Devon in February, why leave home? In Fawcett's day, the Amazon was still 'as mysterious as the dark side of the moon.' Rich Cohen's most recent books are "Sweet and Low" and "Israel Is Real," to be published in July.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009]
Review by Booklist Review
Percy Fawcett, a celebrated member of the Royal Geographical Society, explored the Amazon the hard way: on foot, hacking his way through the jungle. Single-minded and exceptionally tough, he captured the imagination of a public hungry for tales of far-off adventure. His exploits were widely reported, especially when he told of his belief in a lost city enigmatically, he called it Z that would offer proof an advanced civilization had once thrived despite the region's hostile environment. In 1925, having vowed to find Z, he disappeared into the jungle and was never seen again. Grann, of the New Yorker, was no outdoorsman. But captivated by the story, he joined the ranks of the Fawcett Freaks, determined to discover the explorer's fate. (It is estimated that more than 100 people have lost their lives trying to find out how Fawcett lost his.) He interweaves Fawcett's story with rich period detail and an account of his own trip to the receding jungle. The historical passages, peerlessly researched, are the best; the first-person parts could have been a useful way of illustrating the tale's irresistible lure but compared to Fawcett's relentless monomania and astonishing travels, Grann's own journey pales. The device pays off in the final scene, however, when, through Grann's own eyes, we experience the thrill of discovery and learn that Percy Fawcett just may have been right all along.--Graff, Keir Copyright 2008 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
In 1925, renowned British explorer Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett embarked on a much publicized search to find the city of Z, site of an ancient Amazonian civilization that may or may not have existed. Fawcett, along with his grown son Jack, never returned, but that didn't stop countless others, including actors, college professors and well-funded explorers from venturing into the jungle to find Fawcett or the city. Among the wannabe explorers is Grann, a staff writer for the New Yorker, who has bad eyes and a worse sense of direction. He became interested in Fawcett while researching another story, eventually venturing into the Amazon to satisfy his all-consuming curiosity about the explorer and his fatal mission. Largely about Fawcett, the book examines the stranglehold of passion as Grann's vigorous research mirrors Fawcett's obsession with uncovering the mysteries of the jungle. By interweaving the great story of Fawcett with his own investigative escapades in South America and Britain, Grann provides an in-depth, captivating character study that has the relentless energy of a classic adventure tale. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker, gives a gripping, detailed account of the fate of English explorer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett disappeared into the jungles of Brazil in 1925 with his son and his son's best friend. It was not the first time that Fawcett had plunged into Amazonia or confronted pestilence and natives not keen on receiving trespassers. Colonel Fawcett was a soldier, sometime spy, and expert surveyor and explorer who helped define the border between Bolivia and Brazil. But he was primarily obsessed with finding a rumored great city in the jungles of South America, which he simply called Z partly because it did not have a name and partly to throw off others who were looking for it. Grann's experience following this mystery to England and Brazil was an adventure in its own right. He alternates chapters on Fawcett's adventures, based on his diaries and contemporary accounts, with his own and others' efforts to find Fawcett or at least the truth about his demise. Like the books of Simon Winchester (e.g., The Man Who Loved China), this is a compelling and entertaining read. Recommended for all public and academic libraries.-Lee Arnold, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
A stirring tale of lost civilizations, avarice, madness and everything else that makes exploration so much fun. As New Yorker staff writer and debut author Grann notes, the British explorer Percy Fawcett's exploits in jungles and atop mountains inspired novels such as Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, and his character is the tutelary spirit of the Indiana Jones franchise. Fawcett in turn was nurtured by his associations with fabulists such as Doyle and H. Rider Haggard, whose talisman he bore into the Amazonian rainforest. Working from a buried treasure in the form of long-lost diaries, Grann reconstructs the 1925 voyage Fawcett undertook with his 21-year-old son to find the supposed Lost City of Z, which, by all accounts, may have been El Dorado, the fabled place of untold amounts of Inca gold. Many a conquistador had died looking for the place, though in their wake, "after a toll of death and suffering worthy of Joseph Conrad, most archaeologists had concluded that El Dorado was no more than a delusion." Fawcett was not among them, nor was his rival, a rich American doctor named Alexander Hamilton Rice, who was hot on the trail. Fawcett determined that a small expedition would be more likely to survive than a large one. Perhaps so, but the expedition notes record a hell of humid swamps and "flesh and carrion-eating bees [and] gnats in cloudsrendering one's food unpalatable by filling it with their filthy bodies, their bellies red and disgustingly distended with one's own blood." It would get worse, we imagine, before Fawcett and his party disappeared, never to be seen again. Though, as Grann writes, they were ironically close to the object of their quest. A colorful tale of true adventure, marked by satisfyingly unexpected twists, turns and plenty of dark portents. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.