The main characters travel to Haiti on the Medea, a Dutch ship serving the capital Port-au-Prince and the Dominican Republic. The narrator is Mr. Brown, returning from an unsuccessful trip to the United States to sell his hotel, located in the capital. Other figures are Mr. Smith, (the Presidential Candidate), who ran on the vegetarian ticket in the American election of 1948; he and Mrs. Smith plan to build and operate a vegetarian center in Haiti. "Major" Jones, a businessman, is personable and has many war stories that are not quite believable.
Brown returns to his hotel, where he finds that government minister Philipot has committed suicide in his pool. He had apparently become on the outs with the government. Brown has to dispose of the body to avoid being implicated. Meanwhile, Jones is arrested as soon as he sets foot on Haitian soil. Brown convinces Mr. Smith to use his 'political weight' to help Jones get out of prison. With only the help of a pen and some paper, Jones is able to forge his way into the Haitian government.
The body of Secretary Philipot is found and his family tries to hold a funeral. The president's paramilitary force, the Tontons Macoutes, ambush the procession and steal the body. Philipot's nephew decides to join the rebel forces, and first is required to take part in a voodoo initiation ceremony.
Brown reunites with his lover, Martha Pineda, wife of the Uruguayan ambassador. She is still unwilling to leave her husband and child. Realizing they can't pursue their dream in Haiti, Mr. and Mrs. Smith leave for the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Jones has become an enemy of the state, and Brown tries to get him out of the country. Believing Jones is a threat to his relationship with the Lady Pineda, he persuades him to join the rebels in the north. Jones' lack of military sense is soon revealed and he is killed in action, while the rebellion fails. Duvalier consolidates his power and Brown, unable to return to his hotel, goes to Santo Domingo. There he works as a mortician.