Book of the week: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

David Grann's "beautifully written" book tracks the fate of British explorer Percy Fawcett, his son, and his son's friend, who disappeared in 1925 while on an expedition to find an ancient lost city in the Amazon.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

by David Grann

(Doubleday, 352 pages, $27.50)

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Seasoned explorer Percy Fawcett had a team of two and a following of millions in 1925 when he plunged into the Amazon jungle looking for an ancient lost city. The 57-year-old British officer knew the region’s hazards perhaps better than any other non-native. On previous expeditions, he had shot a 60-foot anaconda, fought off insect swarms as thick as rain, and watched men die of starvation and disease. Newspaper readers worldwide now hung on his every dispatch. Fawcett believed that the centuries-old lore about a place called El Dorado was rooted in truth, and he had enlisted his son and his son’s friend on a mission to locate a great, vanished settlement that he called Z. “You need have no fear of any failure,” he wrote to his wife. The three men then disappeared.

More than 100 people have since died trying to track down what happened to Fawcett, said Karla Starr in the Los Angeles Times. But writer David Grann has done far better than escape their fate. The New Yorker correspondent’s first book “brings Fawcett’s remarkable story to a beautifully written, perfectly paced fruition,” and it even makes progress on the tale’s central mysteries. Grann expertly winds his own quest story around Fawcett’s, said Rich Cohen in The New York Times. By casting himself as a lily-livered urbanite who doesn’t even like to camp, he brings an outsider’s perspective to both the everyday stoicism of his iron-man subject and to the fairy-tail-like realm in which the Amazon’s myths and realities intersect. Though some of his narrative tricks become “tedious,” the book is “terrifically exciting” when he finally follows Fawcett’s footsteps into the jungle. Its final pages read “like an adventure story for boys.”

One native woman he encounters asks him a penetrating question, said Jeremy Kutner in The Christian Science Monitor. “What is it that these white people did?” she asks. “Why is it so important for their tribe to find them?” We wonder along with her whether the explorer’s impulse is a peculiarity of the West. Grann never does find Fawcett, said Lev Grossman in Time, but he finds the next best thing. He meets an American archeologist who lives, “Kurtz-like,” with a tribe of Indians deep in the jungle. The evidence this adventurer recently has gathered suggests that “Fawcett may have been right.” The Amazon might have produced a great ancient city after all.

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