The book is narrated from a distance by Arturo B. (probably Arturo Belano, Bolaño's frequent stand-in) and tells the story of Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, an aviator who exploits the 1973 Chilean coup d'état to launch his own version of the New Chilean Poetry: a multi-media enterprise involving sky-writing, torture, photography, murder, and verse. The narrator first encounters him in a college poetry workshop, where Ruiz-Tagle only has eyes for the beautiful Garmendia twins, Veronica and Angelica. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that Ruiz-Tagle is far more and far less than a mere poet through progressively darker and ironic twists and turns.
The next sighting comes as the narrator stands in prison camp for political undesirables, gazing up at a WWII Messerchmitt skywriting over the Andes. The aviator is none other than Ruiz-Tagle, now serving in the Chilean force under his actual name, Carlos Wieder, and writing nationalist slogans in the sky. The narrator becomes obsessed with Ruiz-Tagle, suspecting that he is behind every evil act in Pinochet’s regime. After his release the narrator struggles to survive and make sense of his situation, but his destiny is eventually reconnected with that of Ruiz-Tagle/Wieder when a Chilean private detective seeks his help in tracking Wieder down by trying to identify the airforce pilot's hand behind various articles printed in neo-fascist publications.