There is a certain variety of British man who often washes up in Latin America, having failed to make the grade in love and work at home. Anyone who has spent time in the region will have met one: he spends his days regaling impressionable tourists with streetwise stories about his brushes with the criminal underworld; he is invariably accompanied by a much younger, much more beautiful, native girlfriend; and he generally has long hair, sometimes teamed with a bald patch.
This character kept popping into my head as I read Henry Shukman’s The Lost City. Not because such a man features in the story (although he has appeared in earlier fiction by Shukman, Darien Dogs and his short-story collection Mortimer of the Maghreb). No, unfortunately this is how I began to imagine Shukman himself.
Admittedly, this is partly based on biography: Shukman has spent much of his career writing about his travels around Latin America and the Caribbean. But it is also because The Lost City fits into a genre beloved of such characters: the action-packed tale of a young British man who turns his back on the humdrum greyness of England ("whining wipers and cold windowpanes . . . radiators, thick white walls: he couldn’t bear any of it") for a life of adventure among the brightly coloured peasants and evil drug-dealers of Andean Peru.
The protagonist, Jackson Small, is the archetypal adventure hero: handsome and strapping, artistic, noble-natured and possessed of an uncanny knack for surviving unaided in the jungle. In one concession to post-feminism, his sexuality is refreshingly ambiguous; he has been discharged from the British army following a tragic accident in which his male lover, John Connolly, was killed. He has come to Peru to forget, and to find the lost city of La Joya, which Connolly claimed he had discovered.
When Jackson is robbed by one of the locals, he is forced to raise some extra cash by undertaking a dangerous mission on behalf of the British government. A shadowy diplomat called Brown gives him $1,000 to trek through the cloud forest to place a beacon near the headquarters of the vicious local drug lord, Señor Carreras. The anti-drugs agencies want to take Carreras out, but his base had "somehow eluded all the Americans’ best equipment". Jackson, of course, is just the man to save the day.
The inevitable love interest is provided by Sarah, a blonde American. Fortunately for Jackson, she turns out to be not quite as saintly as she appears: in one very strange sex scene, she responds to the news of his previous gay relationship by asking him to teach her how to have anal sex. Boys-own heaven for the 21st century!
The Lost City would be fine if it were content to be a swashbuckling beach read. The problem is that it has literary pretensions. Shukman is a poet, and occasionally his prose is nicely evocative, particularly when describing the unchanging simplicity of Andean peasant life. But often he clogs things up with descriptive jetsam ("dawn draped the hills in dust sheets like old furniture in a vacant house") when he should be pressing ahead with the action.
How much you enjoy this book will depend on how much patience you have with the fantasies of middle-aged men who are reluctant to grow up and settle down. On the one hand, I understand the urge to spurn grey skies and an office job for something more exciting. On the other, I have always found the conflicts and insecurities that drive such characters out of England in the first place to be much more interesting than any of their Latin American adventures. If I were Shukman, I'd concentrate my literary efforts on mining that rich seam.