Set during the era of the Villa uprising in Mexico, 1916, Fuentes' book tracks the mysterious passage made by cynic/satirist Ambrose Bierce, at age 71, into then very dangerous Mexico, the place where he wished to end his life: "But maybe he was carrying a different fear, one he voiced as he crossed the frontier: 'I'm afraid that each of us carries the real frontier inside.'" Bierce is a mass of regrets--mostly because the cavalier manner of his literary persona undermined his capacity for family love--and in Mexico he seeks a stark finale for his life, an expiation. He immediately meets up with a detachment of Pancho Villa's troops, led by General Tomas Arroyo--a son of servants now vengefully pillaging the same kind of hacienda that in shame he grew up within. It's at one of these estates that Arroyo discovers an American schoolmistress, Harriet Winslow, abandoned to fate when the masters of the hacienda flee. Arroyo immediately takes her for his sexual prisoner--yet she also comes to serve as a focus for an elaborate catharsis involving Bierce and different layers of old sexual/political guilt. Fuentes, unfortunately for the reader, arranges the trio--the old writer/the woman/the ex-slave general--claustrophobically and rigidly: the woman uses Bierce as an embodiment of her father (who abandoned her and her mother after the Spanish-American War); Bierce uses the general as the handiest angel of death, etc. And the three of them are always doing a portentous dance on the ground of Mexico itself: ". . .the fatally stubborn land whose only reality was the stubborn determination never to be anything but its eternal miserable, chaotic self. . ." Excessively hectoring and deterministic, a book that's unusually soapy and obvious from a writer as often adroit as Fuentes.