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…
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.
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)
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.