In a fabulously snide review of the first episode of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on the History Channel, a reviewer for The New York Times refers to investigator Buddy Levy, “who could be a bus driver but who is in fact an English professor at Washington State University and a freelance writer of magazine articles about adventure sports.”
Levy himself thinks that’s pretty funny.
“I’m cool with that,” he says. “I’m a bus driver who can write a narrative history of the Amazon.”
That narrative history, which our charming reviewer neglected to mention, is Levy’s latest book, River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon (Bantam 2011). All of which suggests that Mr. Levy has been a busy fellow.*
Levy, who is a clinical associate professor in English here, has established a very interesting niche for himself as an author and, more recently, as a television personality.
Although his first book, Echoes on Rimrock, about chukar hunting, appeared in 1999, it is his later three books that have established his reputation in narrative history.
First was American Legend, a retelling of the Davy Crockett story. Then, his focus moving south and further back in history, he produced Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs.
And now comes his most compelling work yet, River of Darkness, which recounts the first recorded descent of the Amazon, by conquistador Francisco Orellana. Orellana was a lieutenant of the youngest Pizarro brother, Gonzalo, on a quest for El Dorado starting in 1541. When the troop became mired in the jungle, sick and near starvation, Orellana set off with a few men to secure provisions, promising to return in 12 days.
He soon realized return was impossible because of the strength of the river’s current and set off downstream toward the main river now known as the Amazon and its mouth 2,000 miles away. Their adventures, chronicled by Friar Carvajal, were remarkable foremost in that they survived an extraordinary journey. Orellana was adept at language and was often able to piece together the political structures and remarkable legends of the land they floated through.
One of those legends was of a culture of large warrior women, the Amazons, after which the river was named. Carvajal’s account includes a violent encounter with Amazons who came to the aid of their subjects who were battling the Spaniards. Despite such an eyewitness account, the existence of the Amazons is still subject to doubt. However, anthropologist Anna Roosevelt, whose work Levy drew upon, encouraged him not to dismiss the possibility that Orellana and his men did indeed fight women warriors.
The accounts of Orellana’s journey supports an understanding that is only now beginning to coalesce among anthropologists, that the Amazon was thickly populated prior to the coming of Europeans and their diseases. Carvajal reports sections of the river that were lined with villages for miles after uninterrupted miles.
Levy drew on an enormous wealth of firsthand accounts and scholarship to create this engrossing story. He muses that he’d have preferred to spend more time actually retracing Orellana’s journey. Given that he has a teaching job and a family, he was able to spend only two weeks on the river. Even so, that brief immersion taught him much.
“Obviously, when I do one of these histories, there’s a lot of transporting myself back in the centuries, paring away the modern amenities,” he says. “On the Amazon, you don’t have to do that quite as much.”
He traveled over the Andes on foot and by bus, then traveled with a guide in an outboard equipped dugout canoe. His guide, José Shiguango, was knowledgeable of the flora and fauna of the region.
“I tried to intersperse the natural history as well as I could, organically, within the story,” says Levy. He bolstered his observation by immersing himself in the work of early naturalists such as Humboldt and Bates. He also interviewed Amazon cultural anthropologist Robert Carneiro of the New York Museum of Natural History, who read and offered suggestions on Levy’s manuscript.
Meanwhile, a production company approached Levy and asked if he’d like to be part of a history reality show. Levy says he realizes at the time they were still “in the throes of figuring it out.” But soon, “there I was flying off to D.C. last summer” to film the first episode of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded.
“That proves more than anything else that anyone can get on television,” he says.
Brad Meltzer, who according to a press release is the “first author to ever reach the #1 spot on both The New York Times and the Diamond comic book bestseller lists simultaneously,” is a master of tantalizing with and then debunking conspiracy theories.
“What he realizes and the History Channel realizes,” says Levy, “is there are far more reasonable people in America than not. Still, there’s that question… well, wait a minute.”
It’s that doubt that Meltzer’s books and ten episodes of Decoded are built on. Levy and partners Scott Rolle and Christine McKinley put their investigative talents together to try and solve what Meltzer has defined as lingering historical mysteries. Thus, they attempt to unravel possible symbolism in the Statue of Liberty, revisit the question of whether John Wilkes Booth really died in Garrett’s barn, and more recently, try and determine who D.B. Cooper really was.
The Decoded team’s investigations are unscripted, an unnerving experience, particularly when you’re always surrounded by cameras, says Levy.
Midway through the series, he started to loosen up, he says. Which is good, as it was recently announced that the show would start filming another 13 episodes this summer. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, you can watch several of the existing episodes on YouTube.
*I should add, for the sake of disclosure, that I have known Mr. Levy for at least a couple of decades.