(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Hazlitt, an elderly San Francisco academic, goes to New York to see a specialist about a matter of “life assurance.” On the plane, he is bemused by the behavior of the woman seated next to him as she completely ignores him. Hazlitt is not offended because he is “guarded even with his colleagues at the university,” and he is attracted by the woman’s intelligent profile and “appealing intactness.”

Hazlitt considers it rude, however, when she does not share The New York Times with him and is “flabbergasted” when he observes her beginning to read D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel (1981) on its last page and continuing to read the final chapter in reverse. Shifting to a news magazine, she finally speaks to Hazlitt, declaiming about the dangers of travel. The ice broken, he finds himself telling her that he knows the author of The White Hotel (in fact, they have never met), who “would consider it a personal favor if you read his book as it was printed, from the front to the back.”

Shocked, the woman complains about this apparent madman to her husband, whom Hazlitt deduces is a fellow academic. Hazlitt apologizes, and Dr. Thayer introduces himself. The neurotic Mrs. Thayer responds by thrusting the “filthy book” at Hazlitt: “Read it any way you like!” She then returns to maintaining “to the last his nonexistence.”

Arriving in New York and checking into the Plaza Hotel, Hazlitt remembers his wife’s caution to carry a hundred dollars in twenties “so that when the muggers looked for money they would find it.” He takes a...

(The entire section is 659 words.)