With a British fondness for the colorful fringes of history, and a peculiarly British ability to suggest a whole aura of events outside the actual narrative scope of a book, this traveling journalist of much more than reportorial gifts has written a fascinating, speculative and anecdotal sampler-summary of the history of the Maya. That is, what we know about them, and how we have come to know it, since they so tragically entered our historical record in the era of their own cultural decline. Paradoxically, the further forward we come into the present--the era of discovery and scholarship--the deeper our knowledge penetrates the classic Maya past and the more conjectural it becomes. Adamson, who has a fittingly metaphysical turn of mind for the task as well as an ironic sense of humor, links this paradox nicely to the Mayan obsession with time and makes it the structure of his book. His eccentric, abrupt, tangled and vivid style plunges one straight into the Conquest-era Maya world, which we know from Spanish accounts as well as from the Indian ""codices"": a puritanical, fatalistic and sacramentally bloodthirsty society in which ""the word for love was also the word for pain."" In spite of a vestigial Empire condescension (""the half-bestial glare of neolithic man,"" the Indians' ""great lack of ambition"" and ""chronic instability""), Adamson manages to reconstruct with equal empathy the reactions of Maya first encountering Europeans, those of the 19th century explorer ""overwhelmed by the beauty, the stillness, and the sense of desolation"" of the ruins, and the more scholarly excitement of deciphering the glyphs on ancient stelae. But his greatest pleasure (and the reader's) is in character vignettes, especially of those passionate, ""dotty"" 19th century amateurs in whom ""recklessness and great curiosity often go together."" His own searching, witty intelligence would have been at home with them.