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Story Review: The Swimmer by John Cheever

The Swimmer by John Cheever

It was a fine Sunday afternoon, and the sun was hot. Neddy Merrill was having a drink at the edge of a friends’s pool and it suddenly occurred to him to swim through a string of pools across town into his own house, eight miles away. His impulsive and preposterous swimming expedition started pleasurably, and admirably so. In the first few pools that he had to swim through, he encountered friends and neighbors who welcomed him heartily and only slightly surprised to see Ned in his swimwear, dripping wet.

Ned’s euphoric spirit started to sour as a storm came. When he got to the Welcher’s pool, he found it to be dried up. He proceeded to the public pool in Lancaster and had to wade through chlorine-smelling water. It went downhill soon, where, feeling exhausted and cold, he had to gatecrash a party, was rudely served a drink by a bartender, encountered the anger of a mistress, and arrived at his locked and empty house.

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 backs of the Lucinda River.

It was easy to observe that Ned’s swimming expedition from a neighbor’s pool to his own home was a metaphor for his own life, particularly on his journey towards self-realization that he was not who he think he was. Through snatches of conversations each time Ned encounters a neighbour or a friend, it can be deduced that he was once well-off and that he and his wife and kids enjoyed luxurious living but that he had lately suffered a misfortune, sold his house, and his kids were not with him anymore.

What had made Ned decide to swim across the country, it cannot be ascertained. Truly it was a spur-of-the moment decision, but it was surely something that, although he did not plan on it, had opened his eyes to the sad reality. I do not know for sure for how long he had suppressed the ugly truth about his life and how long he had been numbed by alcohol, but sometimes, it does take a storm to shake us to our senses.

Looking overhead he saw that the stars had come out, but why should he seem to see Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia? What had become of the constellations of midsummer? He began to cry.

The Swimmer is a deeply melancholic story but I hesitate to give it a sad ending. I don’t want to think that Ned will go back into drinking and begging for money from friends again. Instead, I would like to think that Ned’s story did not end at his empty house, but that through his journey he was able to gain enough strength to change the course of his life, one stroke after the other, towards happiness and freedom. And for that I will definitely be cheering him on.

Rating: 4/5 stars.


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