Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bungle in the jungle

The Perfect Storm was one of the great nonfiction reads of the last decade. The quality of the writing was critical to the success of the book, but so was Junger's choice to tell multiple interconnected stories with a focus on the most mysterious and tragic story and his judicious use of background information to provide dread and to make the central story all the more compelling. While it doesn't reach the scream from the rooftops Everyone on Earth Must Read This quality of Junger's book, David Grann's The Lost City of Z is an excellent read that shares the qualities that made the Perfect Storm so good.

The central character of the story is Percy Fawcett who disappeared, along with his son and the son's friend, in the 1920s looking for the city known as Z, supposedly located in the depths of the Amazon. He was a hard driving man who appeared to be largely impervious to the physical hardships of the jungle. He successfully explored many of the unknown areas of the Bolivian/Brazilian border region and was known for a much friendlier relationship with the local tribes than was current at the time. He was also quite hard on those who didn't meet his sky high standards.

Grann tells the story of Fawcett's life interspersed with the stories of those who tried, and failed, to determine what happened to Fawcett. He even travels himself to Brazil and meets with the locals and anthropologists that live among them. He brings some new information to light, as well as bringing in some insights popularized in 1491.

One of the great temptations of nonfiction writers is to use research regardless of its value to the central thesis or story. Grann resists this well, presenting a range of extra information, all of it used to support and enrich, rather than distract from his overall points. He tells of the brutal exploitation of Indian tribes for rubber. These horrible tales are used to explain the hostility of the Indians to outsiders. His stories of the parasites (including the nightmarish candiru), snakes, diseases and worm infestations could simply be lurid terror stories, but Grann relates how explorers on the expeditions regularly experienced them. The descriptions make the tales of exploration all that much more enthralling.

The books closes about as well as it could, with some revelations. Don't come looking for final answers, but do come looking for an amazing story.


Citizen Reader said...

This is a very interesting comparison, Tripp. I got the Lost City book from the library but didn't get it read it time--now I'll have to try and get it back.

Have you read Candice Millard's "River of Doubt"? Might also appeal to you in an adventure sort of way.

Tripp said...

CR, I think you will like this book. The quality of the writing is high and he is both brisk and economical with words, qualities that greatly endear him to me.

I have River of Doubt (somewhere) but haven't read it. The story sounds crazy.