WHEN BRITISH ADVENTURER Percy Fawcett vanished into the Brazilian rainforest in 1925, the world was captivated. Fawcett, along with his 21-year-old son and a companion, had set off in search of the lost city of Z, the legendary center of a vast Amazonian civilization. Archaeological theory had long held that the weak soils and physical extremes of the region could never support a large population, but Fawcett was convinced Z was real, perhaps the El Dorado the conquistadors had sought. His endurance and skill were renowned; he'd charted thousands of miles of jungle, had stood unarmed in the face of hostile Echoja Indians, and had once escaped the embrace of an anaconda. How could he just disappear?
The existence of Z and the fate of Fawcett have been the subject of debate ever since. Dozens of expeditions followed his trail into the jungle, encountering venomous snakes, vampire bats, electric eels, piranhas, flesh-eating maggots, disease, cannibals, and madness. In 2005, David Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker, was bitten by the same bug. To report The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon ($28, Doubleday), he rifled through folders of crumbling letters, searched out long-lost relatives, and finally tromped through the rainforest to a village near where Fawcett was last heard from. Grann is no hard-as-nails explorer, and his self-deprecating personal narrativehe can barely find his way out of a Manhattan camping store, he totes his laptop into the jungleserves as a comic counterpoint to the superhuman exploits of Fawcett. Grann may not be able to hack the wilderness very well, but as a storyteller he's first-rate, tracing Fawcett's path from North Africa, where the explorer served as a spy, to the Amazon's farthest depths. Grann's Fawcett is the last of the great individualist explorers, a larger-than-life character pushed aside by an age in which scientific specialization and technological advances forever altered the way we understand the world. (Brad Pitt's already signed on to play Fawcett in the film.) The neat trick Grann pulls off is restoring a pre-modern legend in the postmodern consciousness: At the book's surprise close, he points to archaeological evidence hidden beneath the jungle that suggests Fawcett may have been right about Z all along. Grann doesn't solve the mystery of Fawcett's fate, but that's OK. Some endings are best left to the imagination. Or Hollywood.