John Wade and Kathy Wade are a couple in their forties. John is a politician in Minnesota who has just lost a campaign for the U.S. Senate by a huge margin. He and Kathy have come to stay in a cottage near Lake of the Woods, a massive lake that joins Minnesota with Canada. They are both secretly depressed, but pretend to be happy by talking about having children and visiting faraway places.
Throughout the novel, there are chapters consisting of evidence. In the first of these, we learn that Kathy Wade disappeared during her time in Lake of the Woods. Various witnesses, including Kathy’s sister, Patricia, suggest that foul play was involved, and may have involved John. We learn that John had an alcoholic father, and that John’s political career ended after information about his past came to light.
When John was young, he loved his father, Paul Wade. His father committed suicide when John was fourteen years old. Afterwards, John cried and had long imaginary conversations with his father, in which his father said that he loved John.
John and Kathy spend their last day together walking around Lake of the Woods. They eat at a Mini-Mart, where they have an argument that Myra Shaw, a waitress, witnesses. John unplugs the phone in his cottage, seemingly because he doesn’t want to think about his electoral defeat. He and Kathy don’t make love that night.
There are also chapters of “hypotheses” about what happened to Kathy. In the first of these, Kathy wakes up in the middle of the night and leaves John for her lover, a dentist.
In the next collection of evidence, we learn that John fought in Vietnam, where he had the nickname “Sorcerer.” The narrator cites biographers who say that the experience of war leaves a lasting, unforgettable impact on all soldiers.
As a child, John loved to perform magic tricks. Even in college, when he met Kathy, he performed “tricks” on her—he would follow her wherever she went, enjoying the sense of control he felt, and the thrill of deceiving other people. He told Kathy that he wanted to go into politics to help others, but secretly, he knew that he liked politics because he enjoyed manipulating others. John joins the army and spends two years in Vietnam—Kathy suggests that he’s only doing so to bolster his chances of political success later on. As “Sorcerer,” he performs tricks for his fellow troops, who see him as good luck. When John returns to the United States, he continues to stalk Kathy, and uncovers evidence that she was having a relationship with someone else. Nevertheless, he marries her. John often thinks that he must lie about his actions in Vietnam.
The night before Kathy’s disappearance John woke up, muttering “Kill Jesus,” and then went to boil water for tea. He poured the boiling water onto a plant, killing it instantly. He then boils more water and carries it to the bedroom. John has trouble remembering what happens next, but he recalls going to the boathouse and possibly getting in the lake. The next morning he notices that Kathy isn’t next to him in bed but goes back to sleep.
The next hypothesis for Kathy’s disappearance proposes that Kathy was scared by John’s behavior that night. As a result, she decided that John was beyond her help or sympathy, and got in the boat to get as far away from him as possible.
As a child, John’s father made fun of his weight by calling him “Jiggling John.” Nevertheless, John’s father was a popular figure in his community, and many of John’s friends wished he was their father. John turns to magic as a way of escaping from his father’s bullying. In Vietnam, John performs tricks for the soldiers, and sends Kathy letters in which he compares their love to two snakes eating each other until nothing is left. He shoots another soldier, PFC Weatherby; the narrator doesn’t explain why he does so. Afterwards, John tries to tell himself that he’s innocent of the crime, and that killing Weatherby was a mere “reflex.”
Back in the United States, John runs for Minnesota state senator, and wins. John has begun yelling out in his sleep, though, and Kathy senses that he’s hiding secrets about his behavior in Vietnam. Nevertheless, she stays married to him. Later, John runs for Lieutenant Governor, and wins.
On the day that Kathy disappears, John thinks of how he will explain to her why he killed the plants. He thinks that Kathy is out for a walk; in her absence, he drinks heavily. Around 6pm, he begins to think that something is wrong, and then notices that the boat is missing from the boathouse. He goes to speak to Claude Rasmussen, the old, rich, Democratic donor who invited John and Kathy to stay in his cottage at Lake of the Woods. Claude, with his younger wife, Ruth, gives John food, and listens to his story. He takes John back to John’s cottage, where he notices that the phone is unplugged.
The narrator quotes from magic books. The implication is that magic is exciting because the audience knows the magic isn’t real, but still wants to believe that it is. In the next chapter, the narrator describes John’s role in the infamous My Lai massacre of 1968. John shoots an old Vietnamese man carrying a hoe, and sees other soldiers, led by Lieutenant William Calley, kill women and children.
The narrator hypothesizes that Kathy, frightened of her husband, left the house and took the boat out onto Lake of the Woods. There, Kathy may have hit a rock and drowned.
After speaking to Claude, John gets a visit from the police officers investigating Kathy’s disappearance. Sheriff Arthur J. Lux, thinks that Kathy is probably fine, and says that he voted for John. The other, Vincent Pearson, distrusts John. He was also a soldier in Vietnam, and doesn’t like what he’s read about John’s behavior in the war. John calls Patricia, Kathy’s sister, and tells her to come to Lake of the Woods.
The narrator gives evidence of the court-martial that took place after the My Lai Massacre. Soldiers insist that they were only following orders, or that they killed women and children to take revenge for own their dead friends.
After the massacre, John extends his tour in Vietnam for another year as a kind of penance while also changing documents to make it seem like he wasn’t at My Lai. When he comes back to the United States, he runs for state senator, hiring Tony Carbo, a fat, experienced campaign manager who encourages John to focus on his image, not the issues. Tony seems to have a crush on Kathy, and asks John if he has any “dirt.” John insists that he doesn’t, but Tony says that he knows John is hiding something. At one point, Kathy tells John that she’s pregnant, but John encourages her to get an abortion, since it’s a bad time for him to start a family. Kathy does so, even though she wanted children.
It’s also possible, the narrator suggests, that Kathy became lost. As she tried to find her way back to shore, she may have thought about her own affair with a dentist named Harmon—an affair that John eventually found out about. She thinks about an evening she spent gambling in Las Vegas with Tony when she had felt a sense of pure optimism. Later, when John lost his Senatorial race, Tony immediately defected to the campaign of the winning candidate, Ed Durkee. This “betrayal” angered Kathy, who had thought of Tony as a friend. Kathy might have been thinking about these things, the narrator acknowledges, as she left John’s cottage on the day of her disappearance.
The narrator also hypothesizes that Kathy might have killed herself by overdosing on Valium, thinking before her death that she wanted more out of life than John could ever give her.
After John calls her, Patricia arrives at Lake of the Woods. She distrusts John. Patricia tells John that Kathy was frustrated with John’s secrecy, a suggestion that John rejects.
In the next section of evidence, the narrator comments extensively in a footnote, revealing himself to have been another solider in Vietnam. He refuses to argue that the soldiers at My Lai were innocent, but also argues that humans are by nature capable of evil things. He also adds that it was the “sunlight” that made the soldiers behave as they did.
In Vietnam, following the My Lai Massacre, Lieutenant Calley tries to intimidate his troops into keeping quiet about their war crimes. One soldier, Richard Thinbill, who hasn’t killed anyone at My Lai, asks John about his crimes, and John admits that he shot two people. John laughs hysterically, and Thinbill encourages him to do so, saying that honesty is the best policy. Later, in the court-martial, Thinbill names John, who he only knows as “Sorcerer,” as a killer of two men. During the Senate campaign, Ed Durkee finds this information and leaks it to the press, leading to John’s defeat in the Senate campaign.
In Lake of the Woods, Claude, Patricia, and John look for Kathy on the water, and Patricia criticizes John for seeming not to care about Kathy at all. Later, John quarrels with Vincent Pearson, and senses that everyone is beginning to believe that he’s guilty of killing Kathy. That night, he strips and jumps into the cold water of Lake of the Woods, thinking that he’s no better than his father, who killed himself when John was fourteen years old. Then, he remembers Kathy’s eyes, and climbs out of the water.
Two weeks later, John receives a call from Sheriff Lux explaining that the huge fleet of boats searching for Kathy has found nothing. Afterwards, Claude tells John that the police are going to dig around John’s cottage on the suspicion that John killed Kathy and buried her there.
In the next section of evidence, it’s suggested that John developed his sense of trickery and his fondness for manipulation from his father. Ruth and Eleanor suggest that the narrator is obsessed with solving the mystery of Kathy’s disappearance. In a footnote, the narrator admits his obsession, but says that the mystery of Kathy’s vanishing is more beautiful than any one solution could ever be. The narrator suggests that John may have killed Kathy by pouring boiling water on her face and then weighing her body down with stones in the lake.
John takes a boat Claude left him and drives north. He reads Claude’s letter, in which Claude advises him to head to Canada to “start over.” It’s revealed that John disappeared shortly after Kathy, and various characters comment that it’s possible that he and Kathy are both alive and living somewhere together.
The narrator muses that he’ll never solve the mystery of Kathy and John’s disappearance. Nevertheless, he’s written the novel to address his own memories of Vietnam, which aren’t much different from John’s. He proposes that, since there’s no one answer to the mystery, one might as well propose the happiest solution. Thus, he proposes that John and Kathy faked their disappearance, met up later, and are starting a new life somewhere. The narrator concludes by suggesting that John was a man, not a monster, and that he was guilty of nothing but living his own life.