Swim On, Cheever
For many, the name Cheever evokes images of rich Yankees in the old suburbs of upstate New York. It’s true that much of his work takes place there, but this milieu was not his natural habitat and the denizens that populate his stories were not of his blood.
John Cheever was a self-made man. Just as he created his fiction, he created his life’s circumstances in order to write about them. Salinger may hold the scepter when it comes to novellas about the privileged in New York, but—leaving Salinger’s great writing aside—I think this is due to youth being at the heart of his work. Salinger’s stories are part of the coming of age within an American liberal education, while Cheever’s subjects don’t fit as well into school curriculums. But Cheever is a master in his own way, with the short story as his domain. In honor of all the essays that have been written by ninth graders about Holden Caulfield, here’s a little book report about Cheever’s best story, “The Swimmer.”
One of the masterful things about “The Swimmer” is its structure. It is set up to simultaneously explore a man’s place in an elite East Coast community and the loss of his mind. The story kicks off quickly. We get a sense of the world we’re in and the people who populate it within the first paragraph. We are swiftly introduced to our main character, Neddy Merrill, in a way that is purposefully misleading. It appears that Neddy is just having an afternoon swim at his neighbor’s pool and his life is all in order. It isn’t until the reader gets to the end of the story that it’s revealed that Neddy hasn’t lived in his home for some time and has been delusional from the start. It quickly becomes clear that the reality of the opening section is very unlikely.
Neddy’s cockamamy plan to traverse all the swimming pools between his neighbor’s house and his own is presented in close third person so that such a strange endeavor comes off as whimsical with a bit of creative rigor. The narrator offers up the idea as an almost artistic response to a stifling situation.
"His life was not confining and the delight he took in this observation could not be explained by its suggestions of escape. He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the country. He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda after his wife. He was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure."
Here the insane idea of conquering the domesticated world of his rarefied community by swimming through a string of pools as if he were an explorer on par with Magellan is not presented objectively; its full absurdity is obfuscated by some misguided quest and filtered through Neddy’s perspective in the close third person so that the idea sounds inspired and unique.
In fact, it is an incredibly novel idea, which is one of the reasons I love the story so much. But the creative originality is Cheever’s and not Neddy’s. Such an idea in Neddy’s life is madness, but such an idea in a short story is brilliant. Cheever uses the plan to show the way man’s primal engagement with the wild Earth has been suppressed by our domestication. For Neddy, the crazy plan also represents his slipping grip on reality. The idea just comes to Neddy, but Cheever doesn’t divulge any of the reasoning behind it. In the end, trauma is the impetuous for Neddy’s delusions. But because Cheever wants this revelation to trickle in over the course of the story, he slips Neddy’s crazy plan in nonchalantly at the beginning.
The pool idea also allows for a gradual development of Neddy’s insanity and an incremental exploration of Neddy’s environment. If we think Neddy’s self-imposed journey is odd in the beginning, it is revealed that his situation is even more off kilter as each pool discloses more of his backstory and how out of synch he is with reality. We also get portraits of the people that populate his world. Each pool is matched with a description of its owners. These descriptions are filtered though Neddy’s perspective, so we get a sense of who he thinks they are, which is then contrasted with how they actually are when he interacts with them. He feels that he is socially superior to some. He thinks that he is the one with the upper hand in an old affair, when actually he is an uninvited guest and groveling former lover.
In the end, his own house is revealed to be empty, and his grasp on reality is completely loosened. The pools are like stepping stones that progressively reveal the extent of the deterioration of his mental state and culminate in the discovery that he doesn’t even live in the community anymore. When this is revealed it negates the probability of the scene in the beginning. But its final pages, the opening scene doesn’t matter. It has served its purpose as an engine to start the character’s journey. It is the booster rocket that propels the story rocket through Earth’s atmosphere and then falls away as Cheever takes us to the moon.
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