A few months ago, I heard the author interviewed on a radio talk show about this book. I generally like travelogues in which a modern journalist undertakes some kind of journey linked to the past (for example, retracing Marco Polo's route), so I was intrigued by Grann's search for the truth about a British explorer who disappeared into the Amazonian jungle in 1925. I had also read several of Grann's lengthy essays in The New Yorker, and found them all very compelling despite covering quite disparate topics.
Given Grann's background in magazine journalism, it shouldn't be too surprising that his debut book has the feel of being a series of interesting magazine articles that have been collected and expanded. There are three storylines, each of which is somewhat interesting, but fall somewhat short of being truly gripping. Wisely, Grann (or his editors) chose to interweave them, forcing the reader to switch back and forth in time and topic, thus preventing any one storyline from growing too tedious.
The main thread is a retelling of the life and adventurous times of British explorer extraordinaire Percy Fawcett. This is not exactly a new story (Fawcett wrote a ton, as did his brother, son, and others), but Grann manages to unearth a few new sources, thus adding to the historical record. Fawcett's claim to fame was his prodigious work mapping the area around the Bolivian and Brazilian border, which involved epic struggles against the Amazonian jungle. The second storyline is the archaeological/anthropological/historical debate about whether or not the Amazon could have ever supported large-scale civilizations that could have built "lost" cities. The third strand is Grann's own journey through archives, and eventually into the Amazon in search of Fawcett's last known location and his top-secret destination.
While there are nuggets of interesting material throughout, the to-ing and fro-ing between storylines and periods makes for a rather disjointed and diluted read. As a result, the material on Fawcett ends up feeling mostly like a potted history of established material (except for his tracking down of one of Fawcett's granddaughters, who rather incredibly has old notebooks of Fawcett's that Grann is allegedly the first to see). At times, it seems like even Grann grows weary of distilling the Fawcett lore (for example, when he glosses over some of the rescue attempts, including ones by an American WWI vet and one by "a band of Brazilian bandits"!). Meanwhile, the controversy over Amazonian civilization is carefully built up over the course of the book, which makes it feel somewhat gimmicky when Grann finally pulls away the curtain to reveal what the latest research indicates. He must have known all this early on, but chooses to withhold it for a rather stagey "revelation" at the end. But his own role in the book is so understated and undramatic that it's not surprising he resorts to this construction in order to enliven the story and add some much-needed drama.
On the whole, it's not a bad tale, just one that's a little too drawn out for my taste and depends a little too much on teasing the reader. The one element that was consistently surprising and interesting to me was the natural danger present in the Amazon areas Fawcett trekked in. Finally, as a postscript, it dawned on me about twenty pages in that many years ago, as a child, I had encountered a fictionalized Fawcett in the pages of an old Tintin (The Broken Ear
), which features a hermit-like white man in the jungle named "Ridgewell" who must have been based on the real Fawcett.