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Story Review: The Swimmer by John Cheever

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The Swimmer is Neddy Merrill who, apparently from out of the blue, and while lounging about at the poolside of some friends’ house one Sunday afternoon, decides to go pool-hopping. He mentally maps out his route, calculating directions from one private swimming pool to another, with his own home as the end point. In his mind, he christened the string of swimming pools after his wife: the Lucinda River.

At first blush, I did not know what to make of the story. Initial impression: I wasn’t taken by it nor did I dislike it. Perhaps I didn’t understand where Neddy was coming from; perhaps I didn’t fully comprehend the story’s message. A reread would be helpful, and I was right.

The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high and he ran across the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River.

[First there were the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups. He would cross Ditmar Street to the Bunkers and come, after a short portage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the public pool in Lancaster. Then there were the Hallorans, the Sachses, the Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gilmartins, and the Clydes.]

The Lucinda River, as is the rest of story, was for me an entire metaphor for life – Neddy’s life, the swimmer. The swimmer could be any one of us, and each pool comprising the Lucinda River represents a chapter in our life story, one that we have to submerge ourselves in and swim across, in order to come out at the other end and embark on a new one. The water in each pool may be chlorine-treated or inundated with debris, the depth of each pool varies from the other, there could be more obstacles in the way like floating toys and effects that may hamper the swim, and even the weather could affect the quality of the swim. After conquering each pool, the swimmer feels his energy slowly waning, until he feels it completely getting drained near the end of the journey. That is time and age, taking its toll. It doesn’t help that the swimmer is practically naked as he embarks on the expedition, stripped merely to his swimming gear and with nary anything else to protect himself physically from the elements. All he has is himself and inadequate clothing to take on all of the pools that are laid out before him, waiting for him to plunge in.

Neddy’s own swimming journey passed in a blur, and he seemed oblivious to its passing. He seemed surprised when he finally concluded his journey and arrived home, seemed unaware that he had come to that kind of an ending. How can one be oblivious about his own life? Is that even possible? It appears so. It’s sad, isn’t it, when you think about it? Life passing you by, you powerless to change anything. What’s left is for you to accept that you’ve come to the end of your own River, and move on.

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?

Neddy was physically fit when he started to swim the Lucinda River, and he was proud of this fact. How did he emerge in the end, when he found himself in his own home? Did he emerge as a winner, or was he down-trodden and defeated?

Rating: 3.5/5
Published in: The Brigadier and the Golf Widow

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