As the novel begins, Henry's white American wife, Lelia, has left him. Before she departed, Lelia handed Henry a list describing some of his personal traits, including "emotional alien," "poppa's boy," and "spy." Lelia told Henry to think about this list, which, as the story progresses, is exactly what he does.
At first, Henry thinks this was a "cheap parting shot" given after Lelia could not be reached. When he reads her description, he is not offended—at first. Then he finds another piece of paper under the bed.
Lelia was a speech therapist; language was very important to her. So Henry is startled by what he reads on this paper: she thought Henry a "false speaker of language." Henry is surprised his wife knew, although he often lied to her. He thinks he is fairly good at lying as it is part of his job as a corporate spy; he must lie to discover secrets.
Despite his lying, Henry feels he is an honorable man, amiable and charming, with a gift for making other people feel good about themselves. He does not use false flattery or seduce; he merely knows how to get people to talk about their most secret passions and thus gather information.
The story flashes back to when Henry first met Lelia, when he was in El Paso on a job. An artist friend, Nils, had invited Henry to a party. Lelia was there, and they spent all their time together. Henry admits the lies began at this first encounter when he invented a story about being in El Paso.
Lelia was more forthcoming, telling him about the classes she taught for immigrants wanting to learn English, and said she could tell Henry was not a native speaker. She noticed how he deliberated before pronouncing words. After the party, when they kissed, Lelia asked Henry if he enjoyed it. Henry said he had; Lelia responded that she could not tell.
Later in the narrative, Henry offers more details about his job. Employed by multinational corporations, foreign governments, and sometimes private individuals, he provides information about employees by infiltrating their lives and then writing unauthorized biographies.