Jack Grady, the fatiguingly masculine field anthropologist who motors Ben Mezrich’s new action-machine of a novel, is having a time of it. One minute he’s hanging tough in a cavern, knee-deep in tarantulas. The next, he’s dangling from the head of Christ the Redeemer high atop Rio de Janeiro’s Corcovado Mountain, “[o]blivious to the wind and the ache in his fingers where he gripped the statue.”
Jack is one of those men who rarely feel the ache. When he does, he ignores it. Barely breaks a sweat. Besides, Jack’s on a mission (more about that in a moment). He’s also got a crew of two brainy-but-green research assistants to protect, not to mention a gorgeous-if-dismayingly-uptight genetic botanist in tow, fresh from plundering the overgrowth in the bowels of Rome’s Colosseum.
And when you’ve got to squire them all between Brazil, Peru, India, Mexico, and Jordan with spear-wielding Amazons at your heels, cutthroat billionaires in Manolo Blahnik stiletto heels texting execution orders, and German tourists blocking the exit door, seriously, what’s a little pain?
There were often times during “Seven Wonders” when I wished I could reach for a bottle of stoic pills, or whatever alpha-male supplement Jack must be adding to his diet. Taking a labor-intensive vacation from his usual nonfiction milieu of college whiz-kids in high-stakes territory, Mezrich has concocted an ersatz Indiana Jones-style adventure with the wide-eyed aspirations of H. Rider Haggard, old D.C. Comics, and the Hardy Boys, yet entirely devoid of their freewheeling period charm.
There are actually 14 wonders informing Mezrich’s scenario: the seven extant and extinct ancient wonders (e.g. the Pyramids and Hanging Gardens of Babylon) and the seven modern wonders (e.g. the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu). In researching Amazon culture at Princeton, Jack stumbles upon a connection between the wonders and early women warriors, a finding that occurs in tandem with the uncovering of a link between the ancient and modern wonders by his MIT computer-nerd brother, Jeremy, who detects a curious double-helix-like patterning between the older and newer architectural sites.
Since Jack and Jeremy are identical twins, there is ostensibly a deeper significance to the simultaneity of their discoveries and the wonders’ mirroring effect. But the author drop-kicks that ball as soon as it’s in flight: Jeremy is quickly dispensed with, leaving the adventure-driven Jack to puzzle out his murder as well as the meaning of his and his brother’s discoveries. He assembles an ad hoc research group to tear around the globe in search of hidden tunnels, strange murals, and cryptic parchments tucked in and around the modern wonders.
On the surface, “Seven Wonders” seems worlds removed from the gambling casinos and university haunts that fill such typically sensationalized nonfiction accounts as Mezrich’s “Bringing Down the House” and “The Accidental Billionaires,” the Facebook chronicle that was wittily face-lifted by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin into “The Social Network.” As before, however, Mezrich stands in awe of high-functioning, risk-taking “Ivy League cowboys” whose talent for gaming the system is only exceeded by their smug sense of male privilege.
If anything, the retrograde sexual politics that underlie Mezrich’s earlier wise guy chronicles seem to ossify into cliche in “Seven Wonders,” in which women are either power-mad ice queens, killers in clinging black leather, or strait-laced academics who need hot dogs like Jack to push them out of their comfort zones. Exemplifying the latter is Sloane Costa, a stiff-as-an-iPad botany studies professor with “clipped mannerisms” who is perpetually tossed into Jack’s arms as the pair vault from one hairy escapade to another.
For all the to-ing and fro-ing, it’s hard to determine just how much actual travel went into the writing, which is chockablock with tourist-brochure history lessons and postcard descriptions. On the Mayans: “The only things they loved more than calendars and astronomy were human sacrifices — and snakes.” Delhi is “alive, beautiful and horrible and terrifying and thrilling, all at once.”
Redundancy rules: The term “Mitochondrial Eve” is explained multiple times, and there is a quaintly swaggering accumulation of the word “damn” in both its adjectival and impolite compound variants. “Incredible” piles up as well (I lost count) in lieu of a genuine articulation of wonder at the mysteries of the past. “Seven Wonders” wants to be a thrill ride, but it lurches forward like a roller coaster with all inclines and no front car.Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.