Glimpse into Another Country Summary
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 horse-drawn carriage to Bloomingdale’s and on his arrival is surprised to find Mrs. Thayer purchasing something from a street peddler, so surprised that he topples out of the carriage and into the peddler’s arms. The peddler is amused and gives Hazlitt “the smile of a collaborator.”
In Bloomingdale’s, Hazlitt impulsively buys what he considers expensive bracelets for his wife, but while the clerk takes his driver’s license away to have his check approved, the store is suddenly closed because of a bomb scare. He calls his wife to tell her about his day but leaves out the bomb scare because it would disturb her, and “for some reason,” he does not mention Mrs. Thayer either.
The next day Hazlitt receives the assurance he wants from the specialist and feels that he is now “free of a nameless burden.” He returns to Bloomingdale’s to regain his driver’s licence, and with his new sense of freedom, he impulsively exchanges the bracelets for an expensive strand of pearls. He cannot afford them, but “writing the numbers, spelling the sum out gave him a tingling sense of exhilaration.” He imagines his wife’s “wide-eyed astonishment, her look of disbelief.”
Hazlitt proceeds to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he, as a graduate student, had enjoyed watching people contemplate the works of art. In the gift shop, he sees another browser, the omnipresent Mrs. Thayer, read the last in a collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters, then the next-to-last, then the next. He goes to the Fountain Court lunchroom, which he remembers so fondly from his youth, but it has been renovated, eliminating the dusky pool and sculptured figures he recalls so vividly.
In the basement rest room, he finds a group of boys, apparently under the influence of drugs, making a toilet overflow to flood the room and smearing themselves with shaving cream. They demand that he give them something but knock the handful of coins he offers into the water. He gives them the pearls and leaves them fighting over their booty.
He returns to the gift shop to buy an Etruscan pin “that he felt his wife would consider a sensible value.” Outside, he passes a bus and hears tapping on a window. Mrs. Thayer waves to him, her eyes giving him “all the assurance he needed.”