This intriguing story of two dropouts from the “normal” world is the first half of a two-novel debut (followed by Semaphore in August) by the author of the story collections Spies in the Blue Smoke (1992) and Playing Out of the Deep Woods (1995, not reviewed). Hawkes’s protagonists are Paul Merline (who narrates) and John Suope, friends since 1952 when John, a US soldier serving in Korea (where he lost a leg), is treated by Paul, then a medic. After the war, the two drifted together and accepted employment by a secretive “Foundation” that sent them to the New Mexico desert to “map” remote land areas for purposes that will never be revealed to them. The story’s major actions occur in 1987, when the insular little world Paul and John have built for themselves is threatened. A young woman graduate student, Caliope Jones, camps out nearby, planning to build (literally) a town, then film its destruction by flood, for her doctoral dissertation project. —Dinosaur men— settle in for extensive archaeological excavations. And John announces that he’s met a woman and intends to live with her. Hawkes creates absorbing drama out of Paul’s mingled disorientation, reawakened sexuality, amusement, and outrage in a perfectly calculated narrative filled with snaky plot twists, rough humor (— . . . we could buy New Mexico and kick everybody out—), and an almost awestruck feel for the endangered integrity of beloved objects and places—physical presences that mean more to the surveyors than any people do: a “monkey-puzzle” tree, a “crash piece” that may be a UFO, a lowering elevation the two friends name the Tooth of Time. The novel is further distinguished by precise, sensuous prose and superbly compact descriptions, notably of landscape (an excursion by raft through a huge underground cavern located beneath a mountain range is especially compelling). The Orwellian enigma of “the Foundation” is more distraction than plot essential, but it’s the only real misstep in a highly accomplished debut.