As a portrait, New York Times correspondent Riding's picture of Mexico is surprisingly lacking in the individual portraits, or vignettes, one might expect from a reporter. Instead, Riding has provided about as good an overview of Mexico's history and current condition as is probably possible for an outsider to that country of masks, introversion, and mystery. Riding smoothly traces the development of the mestizo nation from the pre-Conquest Indian roots to the post-Conquest mixture that is Mexico's unique culture. He stresses the grafting of Catholicism and European autocracy onto the highly-centralized Aztec theocracy: a continuity symbolized in the physical and spiritual centrality of Mexico City (built on the site of the 14th-century Aztec city of Tenochtitlan). Now the world's largest city, with a population threatening to double to 30 million by the end of the century, Mexico City encapsulates the country's problems and fascination. Riding reveals a system of order overlaid by ritual and appearance, and undergirded by corruption. Beset with enormous difference between rich and poor, between Mexico City (a ""magnet and monster"") and the hinterland, Mexico also has unfathomable problems of pollution, public hygiene, transportation, and housing; the concept of a plan to resolve its difficulties is not one that sits well with a dogmatic, family-centered distrustfulness that permeates the popular consciousness or with the patronage that holds the political system together. The Mexican president, elected to a single six-year term, is in reality appointed by his predecessor. Nevertheless, an elaborate election campaign is held and the outgoing president recedes from view while the new one ritualistically criticizes him, a system Riding likens to an Aztec sacrifice. Each new president takes office amid this purifying rite, dragging his retinue in with him. The office is enveloped in a myth of absolute power, but the power depends upon its not being used absolutely, which would destroy the system. Everyone is co-opted; the military (a locale of sanctioned corruption), labor leaders, political opposition, and intellectuals. All but the distant poor get something out of these arrangements--so Mexico, despite its social crisis, does not face a political one. Overly synthetic in portraying the whole rather than its parts, but enlightening and pleasurable.