Roberto Bolaño's vast and fantastic novel, The Savage Detectives, is the story of one poet, or two, or many. In what first appears to be a single artist's coming-of-age story, dozens of vividly realized characters—poets, former poets, and non-poets—end up taking the stage. But crowded as the novel gets, it's more than anything an account of absence and exile. The people its stories are about always seem to be somewhere else, if you can find them at all.

The book begins as the diary of one poet, Juan García Madero, a likeable teenager who neglects his law studies in Mexico City in the fall of 1975 for a life of writing, reading, conversation, and sex. Off-handedly, he is accepted into the ranks of the "visceral realists," a poetic movement of unclear aims and uncertain membership led by Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, whom he hardly sees again until two months later when he finds himself headed for the desert in a borrowed Chevrolet Impala with Lima, Belano, and a prostitute in distress.

Then, abruptly, the diary and García Madero are gone, replaced by an oral history. Through decades of interviews with nearly everyone but the two poets themselves, we track the elliptical paths of Lima and Belano through Mexico, Chile, Spain, Liberia, Israel, Italy, etc. Finally the novel returns, almost at its end, to the diary, as the Impala crosses back and forth over the Sonoran Desert.

As much as the novel is constructed around a search for Lima and Belano, the poet I found myself missing most in the story was the one who, at times, is the most present. García Madero is an immensely charming companion, fresh and open to experience, untutored but able to learn, and I spent much of the middle section of the book wishing he were there (as I think I was supposed to). The saddest lines are the ones spoken, 20 years after the events in the diary, by the world's only scholar of visceral realism: "Juan García Madero?" he says. "No, the name doesn't ring a bell. He never belonged to the group." The saddest, but also the most tantalizing story in this book is where to be a poet is to disappear.