Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston
(Grand Central, $28)
For centuries, it had been “a shimmering yet elusive target for would-be explorers,” said Sherryl Connelly in the New York Daily News. In 1526, Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés reported rumors of wealthy settlements deep in Honduras. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh claimed to have seen an ancient city made of white stone while flying over the jungle. Yet the existence of such a place remained in doubt until 2012, when two filmmakers led a team that boarded a small plane and peered through the jungle canopy using lidar, a laser-based imaging technology. Honduras immediately announced that the legendary White City, or City of the Monkey God, had been found. But proof required someone reaching the remote site. When the filmmakers’ team stepped into the menacing Mosquitia rain forest in early 2015, writer Douglas Preston was with them, wielding his own machete.
Preston, who’s best known as a thriller writer, “sifts through fact and fantasy as he builds suspense,” said Matthew Price in The Boston Globe. On the first night, one of the team’s three ex-commandos did battle with an enormous fer-de-lance—a venomous snake—and the jungle ahead proved thick with other hazards, including jaguars, rapids, mud sinks, and disease-bearing insects. But the mission paid off: The team found evidence of a series of settlements: pyramid-like mounds, overgrown plazas, even a large cache of half-buried animal statuary. Though academics accused the team of showboating, Preston offers a persuasive defense of the group’s work, and he’s “fascinating” on the potential import of their findings. He argues that the people who lived in Mosquitia probably belonged to a previously unknown culture, and that they were wiped out by disease shortly after the Spanish invasion.
Preston doesn’t quite pull off an old-fashioned adventure yarn, said Joseph Bottum in the Washington Free Beacon. “Far too much” of his book is spent defending the expedition, and other narrative detours “range from the petty to the potted.” It’s still a “very entertaining” read, and Preston has to be applauded just for surviving the journey, said Nancy Rommelmann in The Wall Street Journal. Like several other team members, he contracted an incurable flesh-eating disease that has thus far been kept in check by treatment. He suggests that the same illness, now carried by the jungle’s sand flies, may have doomed the people of Mosquitia and could ravage Honduras again. “Was there poetic justice here?” Was the jungle, in its way, reminding us that it can outlast any civilization?