The novel is set in the 1960s in Batavia, New York. It follows Batavia police chief Fred Clumly in his pursuit of a magician known as the Sunlight Man, a champion of existential freedom and pre-biblical Babylonian philosophy. As Clumly believes in absolute law, order, justice and a Judeo-Christian world view, the two butt their ideological heads in a number of dialogues, all recorded on audiocassette by Clumly. Each of these two characters attempts to exert power over the other—Clumly with the law behind him and the Sunlight Man with his magic and violence—until they wear down not only each other, but many of the other characters with whom they come into contact. A myriad of side-stories provides background for the plot.