3. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
The only nonfiction title to make it into the top ten for 2009. Read the full Catapult review.
In 1925, the internationally known superstar explorer, Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, disappeared into the vast Amazon rain forest with two companions, never to be heard from again. His vanishing captivated the world at the time - his exploits in South America had been followed all across the globe via news reel, wire reports, and newspaper headlines - only to have it all fade into obscurity as the century aged. Fawcett was a man obsessed - he spent his entire adult life searching for a rumor, a myth, his own personal "el Dorado" - an ancient city deep within the Amazon, forever eluding the Western explorer, that he had secretively dubbed "Z". Since he vanished over 80 years ago, generations of explorers have gone searching for Fawcett and his city of Z, only to be consumed by the forest themselves. When journalist David Grann stumbled upon Fawcett's story - which by the 21st century had faded far from the public eye - he became obsessed in his own right with uncovering what had happened to the Colonel and his companions.
Grann pens Fawcett's tale with fabulous narrative aplomb - constantly keeping you guessing at what may lie across the next uncharted river or through the next stand of massive, sunlight devouring trees. The pace is perfect throughout - Grann sprinkles just enough of his own comparatively anemic 21st century excursion into the jungle within the history lesson that is Fawcett's life to keep the reader fully engaged and, well, a little bit obsessed with the story. His own obsession pales in comparison with that of the Colonel - he follows him, yes, into the heart of the Amazon, but with the express goal of coming out again to write this story, not to perish in the rain forest without any answers. (To perish would be decidedly Victorian and not very New Yorker.) But the most compelling element, even with the mounting suspense over what actually happened to Fawcett, is in what Grann learns while searching deep in the forests of Brazil. The final chapter reads like an edge-of-your-seat adventure novel, complete with bombshell surprises and a cliffhanger ending, while keeping grounded in reality by the journalist's presence. Could this crazed, Indiana Jones-type have been onto something - even without having any real proof? Could there have existed a massive, advanced civilization - complete with highways, bridges, and multiple townships - beneath the impenetrable canopy of the Amazon rain forest? There seems to be a certain irony that the life of this explorer has been as obscured by the annals of history as his obsession - Z - has been obscured by the forest canopy.