The novel takes place in suburban Iowa and in New York City, around the middle of the 21st century. Its first section describes the childhood and adolescence of Daniel Weinreb, an imaginative boy who manages to adapt well to his conservative surroundings until a minor act of rebellion sends him to prison at age 14. Daniel's experience there makes him eager to leave the Midwest. After falling in love with the daughter of a powerful and reactionary local tycoon, he moves with her to New York, dreaming of becoming a musician and exploring the forbidden art of "flying"—electronically-assisted astral projection. Tragedy and exploitation leave Daniel's idealism in ruins, but he persists and becomes an internationally famous and controversial performer.
Alongside this Bildungsroman storyline, the novel presents a detailed portrait of a future United States torn by economic hardship and culture war. The Midwestern Farm Belt states are ruled by a coalition of the Christian right, known as "undergoders" (a reference to the successful conservative campaign to add the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance); the nominally secular government is socially repressive and business-friendly to an extreme. The coastal states more closely resemble present-day urban America, with generally permissive social attitudes and artistic ferment, but great economic inequality.
The invention of "flying" (which has happened at some unspecified point prior to the beginning of the novel, and is never described in any technological detail) aggravates these cultural divisions. By using a device that seems to be based on biofeedback, while singing with particular verve (an action that, as Disch suggests, causes unique integration of brain activity), a practitioner can separate mind from body and roam the world as an invisible "fairy", able to travel almost without restriction and perceive hidden things. The undergoders regard this as a sinful and dangerous practice, so much so that they discourage musical performance of any kind; but in the coastal cities flying is a fad, so popular that singers are afraid to admit not having been able to achieve it. Many Americans simply refuse to believe that such a radical escape is possible and claim that flying is a hallucination, but still take precautions to avoid being observed by "fairies".