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Story Review: The Swimmer by John Cheever

john cheever

If I am to choose an alternative title for this story, I would dub it “Symbolism of Swimming for Life.” Patiently, John Cheever guided his readers to discern, on closer inspection, a life collapsing with every stroke.

One Sunday evening, during a cocktail party, Neddy Merrill decided to hop from one neighbor’s pool to the other, until he reaches home. The idea of traipsing half-naked across the town may have been amusing coming from a teenager trying to seek fun, one boring day; but coming from a full grown man, it was preposterous.  Or so it seems.

The first leg of Neddy’s journey across the Lucinda River, as he christens these neighborhood pools, was easy enough. He was able to mingle with some acquaintances and share a drink or two along the way. He was a picture of stamina and good humor. But through several more encounters with his neighbors, swimming and wading, Neddy experienced a steep decline on his strength and spirit.  And the pools became more challenging –colder, well-populated, strewn with toys, and one is actually dried up. At the story’s apex, Neddy arrived to an empty decaying house; his family was nowhere to be seen.

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?

It was probably the first time in his adult life that he had ever cried, certainly the first time in his life that he had ever felt so miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered.

Surely, the parallelism is palpable. Neddy’s journey (and the story’s revelation) is one example of how uncertain life is. There are challenges and pitfalls in life, that will cut us so deep, and the only way to survive it is to deny the pain. It will be like standing on the edge of a highway, exposed and barefoot -we will be ridiculed, laughed at, and rejected. But even before Neddy mapped out his journey, he’s aware of his destination. He knew there’s an end waiting, whether he’s ready to face it or not.  How many of us will follow Neddy’s example when dealt with life’s hard blows? How many of us will brave the journey back to the ugly and painful truth?

Published in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow

Rating: 4/5 stars

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