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Story Review: The Swimmer by John Cheever

The Swimmer by John Cheever

The Swimmer opens with Neddy Merrill spending a summer day with his wife and their friends at the latter’s poolside and listening to their group complain about their hangovers. Still youthful despite his age and his four daughters, Neddy sips gin in his comfortable life. Suddenly, an idea gripped him: he would swim home by going through all the pools in their neighborhood. He mentally mapped all the pools that he would have to swim through, and this gave him an explorer’s delight.

The rest of the story tells us of Ned’s pool pit stops in the route that he mapped. On the surface, it looks like Ned is just having a rather adventurous day, as if to say that there is too much boredom to burst in middle-class suburbia. He finds his friends’ homes, some of them taking the surprise visit for what it is, some of them taken aback. Some of the houses are empty, and so are some of the pools. The summer heat dissipates with the entrance of the autumn leaves. His energy is escaping him, his youthful vigor can no longer be felt in his bones.

Time is obviously passing Ned by without him knowing it. Each pool represents an episode in Ned’s life right after he swam away from his wife that day, which is ironic for he named his “river” after her, Lucinda. More so, his pool explorations show us how more and more degraded he is becoming. It’s either he’s stubbornly stuck in a moment, shortly after that time when they were complaining about hangovers, or he’s oblivious to it the passing of time itself.

The rest of his friends look at him with sympathy, hinting at some tragic event that befell his family. His act of swimming looks like an act of escape of which the ultimate goal is to go home. And when he does arrive, what does he find there? The house is empty, there is no home, there is nothing.

Ned, who is introduced as a man who is surrounded by success and who has the tenacity to think that he can take on anything in the world, is reduced to a man easily jeered and sneered at by the same people whose invitations to dinners he rejected before the swim. He claims to be happy with his life, but with each episode in a pool, it becomes apparent that he made a lot of mistakes. He seems incapable of correcting his shortcomings just as he feels powerless to crush the compulsion that he must finish his swim.

Is he an alcoholic? Did he push everyone away? Did he merely go bonkers? Whatever has happened to him before and during the swim, what became of him after is a bitter disillusionment.

Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulders of Route 424, waiting for a chance to cross. You might have wondered if he was the victim of foul play, had his car broken down, or was he merely a fool. Standing barefoot in the deposits of the highway—beer cans, rags, and blowout patches—exposed to all kinds of ridicule, he seemed pitiful. He had known when he started that this was a part of his journey—it had been on his maps—but confronted with the lines of traffic, worming through the summery light, he found himself unprepared. He was laughed at, jeered at, a beer can was thrown at him, and he had no dignity or humor to bring to the situation. He could have gone back, back to the Westerhazys’, where Lucinda would still be sitting in the sun. He had signed nothing, vowed nothing, pledged nothing, not even to himself. 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? He could not go back, he could not even recall with any clearness the green water at the Westerhazys’, the sense of inhaling the day’s components, the friendly and relaxed voices saying that they had drunk too much. In the space of an hour, more or less, be had covered a distance that made his return impossible.

Whatever has become of him before and during the swim, what became of him after is a cold, lonely, bitter disillusionment.


Published in: The Brigadier and the Golf Widow

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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