ENGLISH READING CIRCLE – SHORT STORY OF THE MONTH ANALYSIS: “THE SWIMMER” BY JOHN CHEEVER
This month’s story, and our last of the 2016-2017 cycle, is John Cheever’s “the Swimmer.” First published in The New Yorker in 1964, this is perhaps Cheever’s most popular and heavily anthologized story, and it serves as a fitting close to our cycle. Perhaps Neddy Merrill’s journey across the swimming pools of his suburban neighborhood will bring a refreshing respite from the summer heat (without the accompanying surrealist breakdown in the perception of time, of course, one hopes.)
“The Swimmer” is an exemplary piece of stylistic engineering, executed at such a high level of intricacy by such a master of the craft of fiction that its nuance remains hidden. Cheever makes no false moves, and his timing is impeccable; the surprises he springs on the reader are ripe with power and strangeness. It would be wrong to call these “twists,” since the term typically refers to unexpected plot developments. “The Swimmer” operates according to a different sort of logic, one that blends intense realism with a creeping surrealism that, perhaps, reflects something dark lurking just beneath the surface of life at the heart of the American dream.
Neddy Merrill sets off to swim across the county on a whim, on a beautiful midsummer afternoon, warmed by the sun and by a never-ending series of drinks handed to him by friendly neighbors who seem thrilled to have him appear poolside unannounced and without warning. The idyllic tone of his intrusions is maintained without break, until he must cross the highway and swim the public pool. From this point forward, the coherence of his perception of reality begins to fray. It is worth paying careful attention to those specific moments in which some slippage in Neddy’s narrative occurs. We should try to decipher what larger point Cheever might be making about life in the suburbs in 1960s America. How has Neddy been able to ignore so much for so long? How long has he been hiding from the truth?
Cheever originally conceived of “The Swimmer” as a novel based on the myth of Narcissus, but eventually decided such a construction was too restrictive. The pared-down final product we are left with is an exquisite morsel of a story that captures something real in a very unreal way. Neddy Merril is a man unwittingly alienated from his own memories, one who chases a false self-image while the truth of his world flows on by. The hangover he is left with once the swimming stops is one that will haunt him the rest of his life.