Then one day two weeks ago or so, I was happily “internetting” along when I came across this Slate article in praise of David Grann. A journalist friend sent me the link, and his message simply said “Hero.” I take heroes seriously, long time readers.
Glancing through skeptically, wondering what could possibly be heroic about our fake Amazonian explorer, my jaw hit the ground. The passages of Grann’s work represented in the article—I knew them. It didn’t click yet, but for some reason I felt like I had known Grann’s work for ages. I immediately requested The Lost City of Z and by the next day was crushing it. Before I was even halfway through I was recommending it to strangers who asked me what the weather was like. Didn’t matter, this book mattered. The book, in a nutshell, is about obsession—Grann follows the path of Percy Fawcett, an great explorer who was responsible for mapping the borders of Amazonian countries in South America. Fawcett became enamored with finding a lost civilization in the middle of the jungle that he named “Z,” serving as a new name for fabled El Dorado. Grann’s narrative, which often went back and forth from the history surrounding Fawcett to modern day, was perfect almost fictional storytelling, but what made Grann so enjoyable was how much he enjoyed exploring the very true subject. He knowingly became too involved, unable to stop himself from being so compelled. And neither will you reading it (same goes for Brad Pitt, who bought the rights to the book and plans to option it as a movie with himself playing Fawcett).
After Z, my lust for more Grann knew no bounds. I read The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession in a fury. (The only problem with liking a writer this much is reading everything he’s done in a week—what do I do now?) This is where the words I had seen in the aforementioned article hit home. Grann is a regular New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly contributor—I had been reading him for years, never noticing he was often responsible for the pieces I enjoyed so thoroughly. This book is a collection of his best work, all of it as engaging and memorable as Z but in shorter bursts. My favorites were “Trial By Fire,” concerning an inmate on death row who is fighting against the clock to clear his name, and “The Chameleon,” concerning “actor of life” Frédéric Bourdin’s ability to fool a family into thinking he was their missing son, and what his deception revealed about the family’s knowledge of the disappearance. All of it incredibly engaging, all of it very true.
To get a good idea of whether Grann is for you (and for your sake, I hope he is), do yourself a favor and check out his latest effort for The New Yorker. Just to get yourself started on the obsession.