Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 945
Tommy Wilhelm descends from the twenty-third floor of the Gloriana Hotel and enters the lobby in search of his father. At the reception desk he collects the mail, buys a newspaper, and is told that his father, Dr. Adler, is already in the dining room having breakfast. Tommy braces himself to meet his father; a host of recollections bursting upon him. He is painfully aware of his father’s contempt for him. The old man—now in his seventies—considers Tommy a failure.
In his middle forties, his marriage on the rocks, Tommy does not consider himself a failure, although his personal life is in shambles. Besides walking out on his wife, he lost his job at Rojax, is running into debt, and is learning about alimony payments. Tommy understands, vaguely, that part of his problem is that he is a dreamer, a man who trusts too many people and who has too little common sense.
He remembers his first failure, that of trying to be an actor in Hollywood. He trusted a so-called talent scout named Maurice Valence. He dropped out of college and went off to California on Valence’s prompting. Tommy should have known that Valence was too anxious to assert his legitimacy, and that, far from having a connection with the film business, he was just a fast-talking con artist who organized a ring of call girls. This first failure—one of many Tommy is to endure over the years—was the beginning of his father’s low opinion of him.
His father, Dr. Adler, is having breakfast with a man named Perls, and Tommy suspects that the old man is trying to avoid him or to avoid being alone with him. Adler introduces Tommy to Perls and the conversation eventually centers on Tommy. His father is bragging about Tommy being an important man at Rojax, and Tommy suddenly realizes that his father is trying to promote himself as a father rather than praise Tommy as a son. Tommy is aggrieved as he hears himself reviewing his life story to this stranger. He is especially sensitive to Perls’s and Adler’s suspicions about Tommy’s association with Dr. Tamkin. Tamkin, they declare, is either crazy or a crook, and Tommy is foolish for even talking to him, much less trusting the fellow. Tommy defends Tamkin, but in his heart he fears he has blundered in giving Tamkin power of attorney over his funds.
Laughing over Tamkin’s schemes, Perls leaves the dining room. Alone with his father, Tommy speaks of his personal suffering—his marital problems and his impending financial ruin. By all this his father is unmoved, impatient with this apparent show of weakness and failure in his son. Adler rebukes Tommy, blaming him for his problems and advising him to develop a better sense of self-discipline.
Finally, when Tommy asks for some money, even in the form of a loan, Adler refuses, insisting that he does not want to get involved with Tommy’s problems: He simply wants to be left alone.
On the way out Tommy meets Tamkin. Like Valence, Tamkin is a fast-talking con artist, but, unlike Valence, Tamkin raises the con to a transcendent level. His palaver is incessant, a convincing mixture of psychological insight and crass trickery. He convinced Tommy to invest his last seven hundred dollars in the commodities market and to make Tamkin the custodian of the funds. The chief commodity, lard, is now falling, and Tommy is sickened at the thought that he will soon be bankrupt. Meanwhile Tamkin comforts, cajoles, and wheedles. He lectures Tommy on the evils of money and of the pursuit of money, which is a form of aggression. Tamkin patronizes Tommy, telling him that neither Tamkin nor Tommy needs the money, that it is all a game. Tamkin seems to offer Tommy sympathy and understanding. Tommy’s head distrusts Tamkin and his wiles, but Tommy’s heart accepts the possibility of Tamkin’s being honest.
Tommy and Tamkin are soon sitting in the commodities office, watching the numbers flash on the board. All the while, Tamkin is talking and talking. Despite all of his lies, falsehoods, and chicanery, Tamkin hits upon a truth. Seeing Tommy’s agony of spirit, Tamkin advises him not to “marry suffering,” to cease blaming himself and complaining of his wife’s emasculating influence, and to try to be happy. Tommy needs to live for the here and now, to “live for today.”
By the afternoon, lard falls and Tommy, staring at the commodities board in the brokerage office, sees himself wiped out. He looks for Tamkin, searching him out even in the bathroom, but the old charlatan is gone, disappeared, and Tommy finds himself alone, holding back tears.
In the final section, Tommy makes a desperate appeal to his father for help. He finds the old man in a steam room, enjoying the pleasures of a rubdown. Trying to keep his self-respect, Tommy pleads for help, not just for money this time, but for a kind word, a sense of understanding, comfort. None of these is his father able to give. In fact, Adler becomes irate. Furious, he calls Tommy a slob and tells him to get out of his life. Angry and hurt, Tommy goes out and receives his final rebuff from his former wife, Margaret. On the phone she scolds him for sending his child-support check late and adds further abuse to his father’s caustic rejection. Overwhelmed, Tommy wanders at last into a funeral chapel. There, unknown to the mourners, he weeps aloud for the dead, weeping for himself and for the death of love and human sympathy.