This book begins at the ending: the ending of Percy Harrison Fawcett, to be exact.
In 1925, Fawcett, along with his son Jack and Jack's friend Raleigh, head into the Amazon jungle to find a magical city that Fawcett believes exists. He calls the city "Z." The three men disappear, and are never seen again.
The end…or is it?
Of course it isn't. We've barely read five pages.
In 2005, New Yorker writer David Grann decides to follow Fawcett's trail into the jungle. He hopes to learn what really happened to Fawcett eighty years prior. Was the explorer devoured by cannibals? Did he starve to death? Or is he living it up on the golden streets of Z?
Grann begins his search by heading to England and reading as many of Fawcett's letters and journals as possible. Is nothing private? Grann believes that the notoriously secretive Fawcett lied about the coordinates of his last known location: Dead Horse Camp. Sounds like a charming place for a summer vacation. Doing his best Robert Langdon impression, Grann finds some mysterious symbols that lead him to the true coordinates.
Off to Brazil he goes.
Watching people read is boring, so during his investigation, Grann shows us what Fawcett's life was like. A military man and a gentleman, Fawcett was bored with civilization. He joined the Royal Geographic Society and learned how to be an explorer. As a certified explorer—seriously, he earned a certificate—he set off to map the Amazon jungle. In the early 1900s, very little of the jungle was known to outsiders.
Fawcett's work was critical in helping "civilization" learn about the jungle. But the more Fawcett mapped, the more he wanted to find. Inspired by the legend of El Dorado—Spanish for Ha ha, nice try—Fawcett dreams up a city of his own: "Z."
His reason: just because the tribes of the Amazon live in small, fractured communities now doesn't mean they didn't once live in a glorious city.
He doesn't realize how right he is.
Fawcett obsesses over Z and conducts multiple expeditions into the jungle. Although Fawcett has a reputation for being fever-proof and invincible against jungle dangers, his crew isn't so lucky. On one occasion, former Antarctic explorer James Murray gets sick and almost goes mad. On another occasion, Fawcett's financier doesn't even make it into the jungle before becoming embroiled in a prostitution scandal. As if the potential for deadly infections isn't dangerous enough in the jungle.
As Fawcett ages, his sturdy constitution declines. He becomes more desperate to find Z before he's too old to even reach V or W. For his final expedition, Fawcett brings his buff son, Jack, and Jack's friend, Raleigh. And as we've already told you, they never return.
Over the years, many wannabe explorers try to find Fawcett's whereabouts in the jungle. They die, too. Womp womp. Fawcett's wife, Nina, waits for his return and dies disappointed. Before her death, she gives all of Fawcett's papers to their son, Brian, who writes a thorough account of his father's life. That book is a valuable resource for David Grann.
Hmm. David Grann. Remember him? Where did we leave him? Oh, that's right, he has flown to Brazil to find Fawcett, too, even though around 100 men are rumored to have died searching for the dude. Will Grann become 101?
With the help of a professional samba dancer named Paulo Pinage, Grann heads to Fawcett's last known whereabouts. There, he meets with a chief of the Kalapalos tribe, Vajuvi. Vajuvi recalls the time his tribe turned over a skeleton alleged to be Fawcett's. It wasn't: the bones belonged to Vajuvi's grandfather. The tribe pretended the bones were Fawcett's in exchange for money. Vajuvi swears his tribe attempted to help the three Englishmen, but he still has a bone to pick: he wants his grandfather's skeleton back.
Good luck with that.
The only thing Grann has found in the Amazon is a dead end. But not so fast: he meets with an anthropologist named Michael Heckenberger, who lives with the nearby Kuikuro tribe. Heckenberger shows Grann something amazing in the Amazon: little ruts in the ground that he believes to be evidence of roads in the jungle.
Heckenberger's theory is that some Amazonians once lived in a large city but were killed by conquistadors, either violently or from illness. Unable to maintain their city, it was quickly consumed by the harsh jungle.
Just because we can't see it now doesn't mean it never existed.
Grann is satisfied. Instead of continuing down a path of certain death, he decides to head home. But first, the Kuikuro tribe welcomes him with a celebration.
Grann imagines he is in Z, if just for one night.