The main storyline often branches out to flashbacks of significant trees in John Wade's past. His childhood is constantly referred to as the advent of his persona, Sorcerer. As a child, John was frequently abused verbally and emotionally by an alcoholic father, who was admired by other children for his public persona. John often visited Karra's Studio of Magic, where he bought the Guillotine of Death, purchased by his father. John was devastated after his father's death and channeled his grief into magic.
Wade met his future wife Kathy during their college years, becoming intimate with her despite his secretive nature. John spied on Kathy, of which she was aware, just as he was aware of her affair with a dentist. When John was deployed to Vietnam, he and Kathy communicated through letters; some of his frightened Kathy. John became deeply absorbed in his identity as Sorcerer. He is portrayed as a member of Charlie Company, who were involved in the My Lai massacre. While working a desk job in records, John erased his involvement with the Company.
After the war, John entered politics. He was elected as lieutenant governor of Minnesota and later ran for the US Senate, with his campaign managed by the business-oriented Tony Carbo. At one point, Kathy has an abortion, despite her great wish to have a baby, because John felt that her having a child would be problematic for his political career.
After his landslide loss in the senate race, during which there was revelation of John's role in My Lai, John and Kathy take a vacation at a cabin in Lake of the Woods. They are troubled by the revelation of John's Vietnam secrets, but pretend to be happy. One night, John wakes up and decides to boil water for tea. He pours the boiling water over a few household plants, reciting "Kill Jesus". He remembers climbing back into bed with Kathy, but the next morning she's gone.
After a day of walking around the area and discovering the boat's absence, John talks to his closest neighbors, the Rasmussens. After some time they call the sheriff and organize a search party. The authorities are suspicious of John's calm demeanor and lack of participation in the search effort. Kathy's sister joins the search, and John does, too. After eighteen days, the search party is called off; the investigation into John heats up. With a boat from Claude and supplies from the Mini-Mart, John heads north on the lake. Claude is the last person to talk to John over the boat's radio and believes that he sounds disoriented.
O'Brien introduces numerous alternatives over the course of the novel. Maybe Kathy had sped over the lake too quickly, hit a rough patch of water, and had been tossed into the lake and drowned. Perhaps she had become lost in the wilderness, and ran out of supplies. Or possibly John had returned to the bedroom with the boiling water and had poured it over her face, scalding and killing her. Afterward he could have sunk the boat and body in the lake, weighed down by a number of rocks. Or the event might have been John's last great magic trick, a disappearing act.
John and Kathy may have planned her disappearance together, intending for John to join her and their starting over. O'Brien introduces details that supports each of the possibilities and leaves conclusions up to the reader. Although the inconclusive ending irritated many readers, O'Brien argued that this is the truest way to tell a story. It is reminiscent of his book, The Things They Carried, which presents several linked stories featuring different characters and sometimes differing perceptions of the same events.