Tommy Wilhelm, the book's protagonist, is descending in an elevator of the Hotel Gloriana, about to meet his father for breakfast. Dr. Adler, a retired doctor and Tommy's father, lives in the hotel. From the novella's opening there is a sense that there is something different about this day. For instance, Tommy and his father usually meet in the elevator, however, on this day, his father is already downstairs when Tommy descends. Also, Tommy claims, "he was aware that his routine was about to break up and he sensed that a huge trouble long presaged but till now formless was due."
The narrator is a third person omniscient narrator, however, the point of view changes and often infiltrates Tommy's thoughts. Moreover, the reader is able learn about the narrator's past. Also, because the narrator is omniscient, one is also able to pick up Tommy's habits and learn about his appearance through the narrative descriptions. Tommy, for instance, is a young man surrounded by the old men of the Gloriana. He is in his mid forties, at age fourty-four. He is somewhat disorderly in appearance, seemingly strong backed but beginning to curve, and he fidgets by swinging back and forth with his hands in his pockets.
On his way to breakfast, in the lobby, Tommy stops at the newsstand and has a conversation with Rubin, the man at the newsstand, who notifies him that his father is already at breakfast. They talk, for a bit, about clothes, and then the narrative follows into Tommy's thoughts. As Tommy stands by the newsstand, the reader follows the narrator in and out of Tommy's thoughts and in and out of tidbits of conversation with Rubin. We discover many aspects of Tommy's life. First of all, he has just lost his job in sales and has just gone into a commodities investment venture with one Dr. Tamkin, a psychologist who claims to know about the market. It also becomes obvious that Tommy is under serious financial strain and that he desperately desires the assistance of his father.
It is in this beginning chapter that through Tommy's thoughts we receive an introduction of Dr. Adler. Dr. Adler seems disappointed in his son. Dr. Adler is, himself, quite successful. He has money and is well respected, and according to Tommy, he is "idolized." Dr. Adler distrusts Dr. Tamkin, as is evidenced by a flashback of a conversation Tommy had with his father on the subject of Tamkin. One also learns about other members of Tommy's family: he has a sister named Catherine who graduated from Bryn Mawr. The reader also gets a brief glance at Tommy's deceased mother, who he also believes to have disappointed.
Among the flashbacks, there is one that takes up the most space and that is the one involving Maurice Venice, the talent scout. While still a sophomore in college, a talent scout had called upon Tommy because of his good looks. The scout had seen his picture on a poster while Tommy was running for office at college. Maurice Venice claims that he sees potential in his looks and asks him to take a screen test. However, when the screen test comes back, Venice refuses to take him on because Tommy proved awkward on film because of varying factors, including a speech impediment that seemed amplified on screen. Nevertheless, Tommy lies to his parents and tells them that Venice has told him he would be cheating himself if he did not give acting a try. He, therefore, against the will of his parents, drops out of college and moves to California where he got no further than being an extra. As it turned out, Maurice Venice had been somewhat of a fraud, in any case, and was hiding a prostitution racket behind the front of a talent agency.
Another important fact learned in this chapter is that, when Tommy moved to California, he changed his name. His birth name is Wilhelm Adler, a name he changed to Tommy Wilhelm. His father, however, continues to call him Wilky, as he has always done. The chapter ends with Tommy's plea to God. He apologizes for the life he has led, for wasted time, and he asks for help for a better life.