Old School Sundays: John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”

John Cheever is best known for his suffocating depictions of post-war suburban life. For this, I’ve always enjoyed his work. There is something fascinating behind the concept of thousands American men fighting bloody, brutal battles to come home to cookie cutter neighborhoods, shallow niceties, and good old fashioned repression.

No wonder everyone drank back then…

Vladimir Ovcharov → in Food & Drink

As an undergrad, I was assigned to read Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer.” Neddy Merrill, a middle-aged suburbanite is drinking gin with his wife, Lucinda, and their friends, Donald and Helen Westerhazy.

No pun on the ‘hazy’ part of that name, right? Nah.

By all accounts, Neddy has “arrived.” He makes a great living, has many friends in his community, and receives invitations to all the fancy social events. In fact, at the beginning of the story, he feels on top of the world. His life is good. He is fit for a man his age and decides to take advantage of this fact by quite literally, “swimming” home—that is, doing laps across every pool in the neighborhood, town, heck county. Now, it may be the alcohol talking, but Neddy feels pretty confident in his feat.

Marian → in Constructions Marian → in Constructions

And at first he has reason to. Several neighbors offer him an additional drink before taking his voyage across their pools. But after some time, he notices the curt receptions he gets from people he’d assumed were his friends. He’s baffled by a couple who says they haven’t drunk alcohol in three years due to the husband’s illness. Neddy can’t seem to remember this. He also notices for sale signs on the lawns of an acquaintance and wonders when it was they decided to move. He begins to question his sanity and considers the fact that he’s lost his memory.

Finally, about half way through his quest home, he is forced to cross the highway to get to the town’s public pool. He has this thought while shivering his swimming trunks, waiting for a clear shot to get to the median:

“Why, believing as he did, that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense, was he unable to turn back? Why was he determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger? At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious?” (Cheever, 2047)

j. l. johnson → in Constructions

Of course, this becomes symbolic of Neddy’s larger world. He lives in a world full of superficial expressions. He’d gone for so long believing that his life was peachy keen that he didn’t realize how much he’d isolated himself from his own community. His trip  becomes parallel with his life: Seemingly fun at first, but murky and confusing when forced to face it head on.

When Neddy finally makes it home (not before stopping at his former mistress’s house, where she promptly kicks him out) no one is there. It is dark. Neddy cries suddenly, and assumes it is just from all the swimming, all the liquor. But when he peers in the window, the house is empty.

I love this story because themes of hopelessness and the barrenness of suburban life ooze off the page. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? A nagging for adventure, but nothing to show for it except a bunch of uniform swimming pools.

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19 Comments

Filed under Old School Sundays

19 responses to “Old School Sundays: John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”

  1. Ive never read any Cheever, but now, i think i should 🙂

    xx

  2. I admire authors who are so adept at weaving theme into their stories. I’m trying to do more of that with my current WIP, though as a thriller, I doubt much theme is expected. But it’s nice to have a ‘bigger picture’ to the story if possible.

    Great post, as always!

    • I think theme is always important..even in thrillers! You’re right though, it may not need to be as richly layered as in literary novels, but I feel like I’m always searching for theme no matter what genre I’m reading. I do it in movies and television too. Maybe that’s just me though. Cheever is a master with theme though. He’s a good to one to study if you’re trying to improve the thematic undertones in your own WIP. 🙂

  3. What a great story!
    I think it is easy to write off our mundane lives as uninteresting, but if you look deeper I’m certain there is a lot to learn about human nature in our everyday struggles. I’m curious about John Cheever now.
    And it’s nice to see you posting again!

    • Thanks Kirsten 🙂 I was glad to see you posted the other day as well. I’ll be leaving a comment over the course of the next couple of days. Cheever is great if you’re interested. His short stories are the way to go. I mentioned to Vicki above that “The Five Forty Eight” is one of his best short stories other than “The Swimmer.”

      Gosh, you’re right though. I haven’t done an Old School Sunday post in a looooong time. Wow. Not sure if it’s good or bad that you noticed! 🙂

  4. Great analysis! I may have to find some Cheever to read now as you have piqued my interest! 😀

  5. I’ve recently been lamenting the number of Sad Man books I seem to be reading lately. Yet somehow, all these years, I’ve never read Cheever. I should remedy this.

  6. What a wonderful analysis of this story! I haven’t read Cheever in a long while. I often found them depressing. But he is a wonderful writer and this one in particular really captures the angst of the times.

    • I agree, there’s a bit of a depressing undercurrent to his stories, but I think that’s why I like them. In so many ways they are truly truthful stories. Definitely captures the time period…masterfully! I’m glad you liked my analysis 🙂

  7. Thanks for introducing me to another new author today. I just finished reading a post about Richard Yates before this one. Never heard of him before either.

    • Yes, I saw the Richard Yates post as well! I’m glad to introduce you to a great writer! If you get a chance, check out some of Cheever’s writing. He definitely knows what he’s doing 🙂

  8. I love how you sum it up in your last paragraph — it feels so relatable.

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