Our guide through this passage from innocence to experience is a pretty, young college graduate from Nevada who goes by the name Reno. Like so many naive artists before her, she makes the pilgrimage east to soak up the avant-garde spirit. “I knew no one else,” she tells us, “but downtown New York was so alive with people my age, and so thoroughly abandoned by most others, that the energy of the young seeped out of the ground. I figured it was only a matter of time before I met people, was part of something.”
With the camera she stole from school, she squats in a squalid apartment, waiting for — for what? To be inspired? To be discovered? “I thought art came from a brooding solitude,” she says. “I felt it had to involve risk, some genuine risk.” But what’s truly risky and what’s truly genuine prove difficult for Reno to determine.
There’s a “Midnight Cowboy” vibe to this New York adventure engorged with potential sex and transformation. Desperately lonely and baffled by the so-called art she sees on display, Reno is just about to give up when she happens to fall in with a dissolute couple in an empty bar. The next 20 brilliant pages could make any writer’s career: a set piece of New York night life that’s a daze of comedy, poignancy and violence. Unsure whether she’s expected to follow them or not, Reno and this drunk pair float from bar to bar and finally to an apartment, where her hosts excuse themselves to make love — with a pistol full of blanks. I haven’t read anything quite like this scene since Tom took Nick Carraway to Myrtle’s little apartment in “The Great Gatsby.”
That evening with the drunk couple eventually ushers Reno into a group of artists, performers, gallery owners and general hangers-on who will be her comrades for the next two years. How well Kushner knows these exotic creatures who live in “a world of infatuation and innuendo and games.” She re-creates gallery openings that display their grasping ambition disguised under cool indifference, their utter lack of curiosity passed off as prior familiarity with anyone who’s anyone. And Kushner invites us along to their languid dinner parties, which serve up gourmet helpings of self-promotion spiced with menace and flattery.
Her attention to the way these artists talk comes as close to parody as Warhol got to Campbell’s soup. “I used to paint,” one blowhard announces. “I had to give it up. I lost contact with the paintings.” Another drones: “The main thing to understand is that I deal in light. I mean I deal with light. It’s a way of portraying light — light that is a lit picture of some other, original light.” One night, she listens to a man who plays endless tape recordings of himself: He wants to make himself sick of talking “by talking it all out.”