John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is the perfect read for the waning days of summer, when early evening thunderstorms break the heat, and when children play under moonlight — knowing their freedom will soon end. In the more than 50 years since it was originally published in The New Yorker, Cheever’s tale has become an undergraduate rite-of-passage, a staple of graduate writing programs, and a favorite of readers long out of the classroom. In the same way that James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are often relegated to shorthand, Cheever’s tale has its own summary: a man’s decision to swim home is not what it seems. The genius of Cheever’s narrative is how it courts, but ultimately resists, myth. The story gestures toward The Odyssey, but remains painfully provincial and absolutely suburban.
When a story reaches iconic status, we trade the actual text for its themes. Granted, the thematic considerations of “The Swimmer” are nearly endless. It is a love letter to youth and sport; document of mid-century Protestant despair; a metaphor for our seemingly perpetual American economic downturn. “The Swimmer” could be put into conversation with Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, contrasted with the Lisbon family’s superstitious suburban Catholicism in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, or perhaps best paired with Laurie Colwin’s fine story “Wet,” another tale of secrecy and swimming. It is also a quite teachable tale: no other work of short fiction better examples John Gardner’s potamological concept of fictional profluence than a story the main character of which travels by water.
“The Swimmer” begins passively enough: “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’” “Midsummer Sundays” is so lithe and hopeful that it carries into the “whispers” about hangovers in the second sentence. The town church, golf course, tennis courts, and wildlife preserve are all full of the talk. Most blame it on the wine. The opening paragraph’s haze blurs into the location of the story’s first scene at the Westerhazy’s pool.
“The Swimmer” is a sad story, but its sadness is particular. Neddy’s story is surreal and finite. He is handsome, confident, and athletic, and yet a footstep away from the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. When Cheever writes that Neddy “was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure,” the tongue is out of the writer’s cheek and pointed at the reader. Average comic writers pine for laughs. Brilliant comic writers embrace tragedy.
Cheever takes his time with tragedy. At the Bunkers’ pool, “water refracted the sound of voices and laughter and seemed to suspend it in midair.” Ned exists on another, mystical, almost psychotropic plane. He would get along well with Oedipa Maas. Of the party, Neddy “felt a passing affection for the scene, a tenderness for the gathering, as if it was something he might touch,” yet he does not wish to be deterred by the party chatter.
He soon reaches the Levy’s home. There are few architectures more soulless than an empty suburban space, and Cheever captures it: “All the doors and windows of the big house were open but there were no signs of life; not even a dog barked.” Having crossed eight pools — half of his intended journey — Neddy “felt tired, clean, and pleased at that moment to be alone; pleased with everything.”
Then comes the storm:
It was suddenly growing dark; it was that moment when the pin-headed birds seem to organize their song into some acute and knowledgeable recognition of the storm’s approach. Then there was a fine noise of rushing water from the crown of an oak at his back, as if a spigot there had been turned. Then the noise of fountains came from the crowns of all the tall trees. Why did he love storms, what was the meaning of his excitement when the door sprang open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs, why had the simple task of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent, why did the first watery notes of a storm wind have for him the unmistakable sound of good news, cheer, glad tidings?
There is a hint of the supernatural in this prosaic world. Michael Chabon has called “The Swimmer” a ghost story, and he is correct. All suburban stories are ghost stories.
Neddy leaves the cover of the Levys’ gazebo to see red and yellow leaves scattered across the grass and the pool, and “felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn.” It is easy to read such lines and think that this wealthy man who lives in a wealthy area — he needs to cross a backyard riding ring on his way to the next pool — is not worthy of even our comic sympathy, but Cheever’s story has mysterious ways. Neddy is a pathetic soul. He is not simply a failure — he is unaware of his failure.
Look back to the first page of “The Swimmer.” From the dreary, town-wide hangover of Sunday morning emerges Neddy. His introduction follows the most syntactically simple sentence in all of valorized literature — “The sun was hot” — and his first action is sliding down a banister and giving “the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room.” Neddy is sound in mind and body. He greets the reader with a smirk.
While talking about the story, A.M. Homes notes “Life is incredibly surrealistic…So many things are so odd. You just have to be aware of it.” Homes sees the same literary moves occur in the fiction of Don DeLillo, particularly White Noise. Sarah Churchwell, likening Homes’s own work to the fiction of Cheever, explains that the latter’s “power comes from the bait and switch: he lures you into a complacent chuckle and then stabs you in the ribs.” Even Cheever felt that pain. He thought “The Swimmer” was a “terribly difficult story to write…Because I couldn’t ever show my hand. Night was falling, the year was dying. It wasn’t a question of technical problems, but one of imponderables.” Cheever “felt dark and cold for some time after I finished that story” — a lament the syntax and soul of which is baked into the syntax of “The Swimmer.”
The story’s second half contains a naked “elderly couple of enormous wealth who seemed to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists,” Neddy’s athletic exhaustion, a visit to a “stagnant” public pool, changing constellations — and yet so much more. Don’t take my affectionate word for it. Find a copy of The Stories of John Cheever, sit in front of a window on a cloudy day, and re-read “The Swimmer.” Allow the story to bring you back to the temporary innocence of July and August. Experience the deep melancholy of its final paragraph as you get ready for the cold months ahead, but don’t worry: there is always next summer.
Image Credit: Pixabay.