In “The Swimmer,” John Cheever experiments with narrative structure and chronology. Apparently realistic on the surface, the story is eventually revealed as reflecting the disordered mind of the protagonist. When the story opens, Ned Merrill is youthful, strong, and athletic; by the end, he is a weak and broken man, unable to understand the wreckage of his life. Proud of his wife and his four beautiful daughters, Merrill at first seems the picture of health and contentment. This initial image quickly disintegrates as Merrill weakens and is confronted with his loss. However, the action of the story takes only a few hours.
One summer day, Ned decides to swim a series of pools between the home of his friends the Westerhazys and his own home eight miles away. He imagines the string of pools as a river, a “quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county,” and names it Lucinda, after his wife. He begins his peculiar trip with great gusto, imagining himself “a legendary figure” or “a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny.”
As Ned begins his journey, Cheever establishes the social context of a typical Sunday in Bullet Park. People go to church, it seems, but once there they commiserate with one another about their hangovers. Once home from church, most of their activities are athletic: golf, swimming, tennis, and perhaps some bird-watching at the wildlife preserve. Ned’s desire to swim across the county is presented as the quintessence of the athletic optimism that characterizes his whole community. However, the ubiquitous hangovers undercut the otherwise rosy picture of life in this beautiful suburb. Similarly, Ned’s apparent health and vigor mask the reality of his distress.
At first Ned’s trip goes well. He swims unnoticed through people’s backyards, or is welcomed by surprised friends who are enjoying a Sunday swim, or entertaining at poolside. At several houses he accepts drinks. By the time he has swum half the Lucinda, he is tired but satisfied. However, the second half of the journey goes less well. He is caught in a sudden storm, which turns the weather cooler and creates an autumnal feeling. He is disappointed when a friend’s pool is empty of water, the bathhouse locked, and a “For Sale” sign nailed to a tree. When he has to cross a highway, he is embarrassed to be seen in his swim trunks by passing motorists, some of whom throw beer cans or jeer at him. He considers returning to the Westerhazys, but finds rather to his surprise that he feels unable to return. Somehow it is impossible to go back.
The worst part of the trip is yet to come. First, he must swim with distaste through the crowded, unclean public pool. Then, as he travels from yard to yard, old friends and neighbors make strange remarks to him. One couple, who happen to believe in nude sunbathing, offer sympathy for his recent misfortunes—yet Ned has no sense of what they mean. In two places, rude comments are made about his financial situation. His former mistress, who cried when he broke off their affair, now scorns him. He even perceives rebuff at the hands of a bartender working at one of the parties through which he passes. At the last few pools he can barely swim and must stop repeatedly, holding on to the side. When he reaches his own house, he finds the garage doors rusty, the rain gutters loose, and the door locked. Looking in the windows, he sees that the house is empty.
The comic absurdity and artful randomness of “The Death of Justina” differ sharply from the dark ambiguity and the tight, almost inexorable structure of “The Swimmer,” another Cheever story concerning modern people’s efforts to guard themselves from every painful memory and every proof of their own mortality. “The Swimmer” begins on a summer day around the Westerhazys’ pool when the youthful Neddy...
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