Fading charmer Tommy Wilhelm has reached his day of reckoning and is scared. In his forties, he still retains a boyish impetuousness that has brought him to the brink of chaos: He is separated from his wife and children, at odds with his vain, successful father, failed in his acting career (a Hollywood agent once cast him as the "type that loses the girl"), and in a financial mess. In the course of one climactic day he reviews his past mistakes and spiritual malaise, until a mysterious, philosophizing con man grants him a glorious, illuminating moment of truth and understanding, and offers him one last hope... Book jacket.
Not bad considering
The story of a day in the life of a man who sees himself as having failed at life, on the day his precarious financial situation comes to a head. Having left his wife and children and given up his job, he is living in the same residential hotel as his widowed father, who is entirely unsympathetic to his plight.
Tommy Wilhelm's life has been one long series of bad decisions, starting with leaving university for Hollywood even though the agent who gave him a screen test was discouraging about his chances. He never seizes the day, but passively waits and hopes for someone, whether his father or Dr. Tamkin, to save him from himself.
It's also like a taster for The Magic Mountain filtered through Dostoevsky. Had I thought that to begin with I think I would have enjoyed it a bit more.
Tommy Wilhelm, whose real name is Wilhem Adler, is a failure. A career in the theatre exists only in him own mind, as he keeps telling himself his career to stardom is just waiting to take off. It is obvious, that his father, Dr. Adler, who appears as a towering and solid rock beside whimpish Tommy, believes his son is beyond help, pitying him in his judgement and inability to take his good council. Although they broke up four years earlier, Tommy's wife must be regarded as truly loyal and devoted in her relentless belief that Tommy can still be and should be the breadwinner of their family. She more or less treats him as a spoilt child, who does not want to take responsibility. As his childish name, Tommy, suggests, Wilhelm's faulty judgement is not only in ignoring his well-wishers, but also following wrong advise. Not only his judgement is impaired, he is not even sure to recognize people for who they are, least of all himself.
I had to read Seize the day three times to make any sense of it, and reading it backwards was the most helpful, as obviously, the culmination and the most telling scenes, for instance, the long telephone call with his wife, occur towards the end of the novel.
Seize the day was written in in the 1950s, but makes more sense being set in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Besides his inability to see himself in the right light, he also hangs on to a lifestyle which clearly isn't his. He lives in the same hotel as his father, in an area where many retired and old people live. Wilhelm fails to capture the spirit of the new epoch. As the American Dream started to take shape, the work ethos of Americans changed to exult "hard work" as the key to success for everyone. Tommy spent seven years in Hollywood to be ready for his career in the theatre. He still hold on to hope, speculation and expectation, much to the irritation of the people around him. However, deep inside he does seem to know what is expected of him, as he looks into the distorting and shadowy mirror and wonders: "He had put forth plent of effort, but that was not the same as working hard, was it?" (p.5).