31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 25: “The Swimmer” by John Cheever
From The Stories of John Cheever
Philip Roth called John Cheever “an enchanted realist,” which is an inspired way of thinking about one of the twentieth century’s great chroniclers of the American suburbs. Cheever’s stories seem at first glance to be models of verisimilitude, though scratch a bit deeper and an abundant strangeness starts to appear. The allusive final line in “A Country Husband” – an otherwise straightforward work of naturalism – hints floridly at the world of Hannibal and his army: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” An earlier story, “The Enormous Radio,” contains uncanny aspects that align it almost with Poe’s tales of the unnatural.
It is these elements of Cheever’s work that appeal to the Irish writer Anne Enright. Speaking on The New Yorker’s fiction podcast series, Enright talks about the way Cheever and his contemporaries were able to write in a naturalistic manner, but what happened on the page was not required to be tethered to our understanding of reality. “It is the dreamlike, metaphorical nature of the story that really calls to me. Because it’s a terrible thing to ask a writer to limit their words to life itself.”
The story to which Enright is referring is “The Swimmer,” from Cheever’s mid-career. It was first published in The New Yorker in 1964, and released as a feature film four years later, with Burt Lancaster in the title role. One of Cheever’s most famous – and most frequently anthologized – stories, “The Swimmer” starts off plainly enough, with Neddy Merrill attending a midsummer party at the house of Donald and Helen Westerhazy. At some point during the afternoon, Ned realizes that the swimming pools in the suburban backyards form a “quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county”; by using these pools, and taking “a dogleg to the southwest,” he could actually swim home.
This he sets out to do, and it is here that the story abandons much of its realism for something more frankly dreamlike (to use Enright’s preferred term).
In its early stages, “The Swimmer” focuses insistently on Ned’s youthful virility. While being “far from young,” Ned nevertheless retains “the especial slenderness of youth” and is still prone to exuberances such as sliding down the banister in his house. At the story’s opening, he has been swimming in the Westerhazy’s pool, and is pictured “breathing deeply, stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure,” which all “seemed to flow into his chest.” Ned’s potency and athleticism are inextricable features of his self-worth: “He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools.”
It is equally significant that Cheever insists on the time of year as being midsummer at the story’s start; as the tale progresses, and Ned proceeds further on in his swim home, the time of year shifts forward inexplicably, with midsummer giving way to autumn. “Leaves were falling down around him and he smelled wood smoke on the wind,” we are told at a later point in the story. “Who would be burning wood at this time of year?” Still later, Ned smells chrysanthemums or marigolds, “some stubborn autumnal fragrance,” and notices the constellations that appear in the sky have shifted to those visible in the fall.
Coincident with this perceptible but inexplicable shift in the season is a rapid depletion of Ned’s own strength and stamina. The more pools he visits, the weaker he becomes, until he is finally unable to hoist himself out of the water and onto the ground by his arms and is forced to use the pool ladder instead. “The swim was too much for his strength,” he thinks at one point, “but how could he have guessed this, sliding down the banister that morning and sitting in the Westerhazy’s sun?”
How, indeed? And how is a reader to respond to these uncanny happenings, to say nothing of the fact that events seem to have occurred around Ned without his being aware of them, including the sale of his house and a friend’s abdominal operation. “Was he losing his memory,” Cheever writes, “had his gift for concealing painful facts let him forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, that his friend had been ill?” The eerie discomfort in the story is a result of there being no incontestable explanation for what transpires to Ned, though it would seem that his journey home by water takes him forward not just in space but also in time, stripping him of all the benchmarks by which he has located his identity: his physical prowess, his family, his home.
Also – and, this being a Cheever story, significantly – his social status. Ned is, at the story’s outset, a vain man, and his vanity is manifested in a blithe contempt for those he considers to inhabit a lower social echelon than he does. As he proceeds in his journey, he is startled to attend a party at the home of a putatively less-well-heeled couple where he is treated rudely, first by the hostess, next (horrors!) by the bartender. He then attends the home of an ex-mistress, with whom he assumes he retains the upper hand; she also treats him with disdain.
“The wonderful thing about the sting in the tail of this story,” says Enright, ” … is that you don’t quite know what it is. It stings, but you don’t know what bit you.” Cheever himself compared this story to the myth of Narcissus, who famously drowned (in a different kind of pool) while gazing at his own reflection. In the final scene of Cheever’s tale, with Ned beating futilely on the door of his empty and abandoned house, we feel a kind of death, in that our hero has lost everything that he has held dear; his own vanity has somehow caused his downfall. But how, precisely, this occurs is left tantalizingly unclear. The anti-realist aspects of the story were sufficient to turn off numerous readers in Cheever’s own day; more than half a century later, the story has lost none of its power to puzzle and provoke.