Jimmy Burns, the protagonist and narrator, is a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, a former Marine military policeman, and a veteran of combat in Korea. He resides at the Posada Fausto in Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatán. Other expatriates living there are Doc Richard Flandin, a self-styled expert on Mayan culture, and Frau Alma Kobold, the invalid widow of a photographer. Doc Flandin affects Frenchness but grew up in Los Angeles. Frau Kobold is bitter, wheelchair-ridden, and chain-smoking. She has for many years been sending Jimmy anonymous hate letters. She sets the incidents in motion which comprise the most tightly woven of Portis’s plots. She writes a letter—again, anonymous—to a flying-saucer newsletter prophesying the appearance of a mysterious El Mago at Likí’n (the City of Dawn), a hilltop ruin across the river in Guatemala.
The predicted event draws Rudy Kurle, an investigator of extraterrestrial visitations, to Mérida. Kurle believes the City of Dawn to be a landing site for visitors from outer space. He is accompanied by Louise Kurle, supposedly Rudy’s wife, a young woman with a degree in human dynamics. She eventually reveals that she is not his wife but his sister. Kurle wanders off down the river and disappears. Jimmy, who earns his living as a freelance teamster, is also an occasional tracer of lost persons. He and his friend Refugio Bautista Osorio go in search of Kurle and the mystical City of Dawn. Portis sends each...
(The entire section is 582 words.)