I read John Cheever’s short story’ The Swimmer’ four times in quick succession. I want to read it again. It deserves that kind of attention. Published in 1964 in the ‘The New Yorker’ it’s available in a myriad of formats online.This is the world of ‘Mad Men’ and Don Draper. John Cheever lived in Ossining, the town Don Draper is said to come from. It’s not a coincidence. The ‘Mad Men’ scriptwriters are clearly Cheever readers, like him, mining dysfunction in the affluent middles classes of Connecticut.
I feel possessive of that opening line. I want it to be mine.
‘It was one of those midsummer afternoons when everyone sat around saying ‘I drank too much last night’.
In the first paragraph, he tells us exactly where we are; and more. He shows us the prejudices and constraints of that place.
‘You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving the church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife reserve where the leader of the Audubon was struggling with a terrible hangover.’
Neddy Merrill, the central character, is handsome and athletic. Cheever says:
‘He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one.’
I love that. It’s such a clever way to tell us he’s fading, he’s not what he was but he hasn’t quite realised yet.
Neddy Merrill decides he will make the journey home, all eight miles of it , by swimming through his neighbours swimming pools. As he does there are brutal interruptions, the busy highway he has to cross, the public pool with its noise and its litter. There are time shifts; and he drinks.
It doesn’t end well.
There is a film version I have a vague memory of where Burt Lancaster models the hairstyle George Clooney later adopts, a twentieth century American Caesar waiting for his crown of laurel. There are trailers on Youtube. It’s not an accurate representation fo the story. It involves young women and a horse, but it is, in parts, faithful to the elegiac mood of the piece.
John Cheever’s prosperous family lost their fortune, suddenly and dramatically. It smarted. Cheever drank, copiously. There are clear parallels with Neddy Merrill. Cheever wanted to be surrounded by adorable children and a Labrador, smoking a pipe in front of a log fire in a well appointed home. He wanted what his father had lost. To some extent he managed this. His three children speak fondly of him. They are successful and settled. His wife stayed.
He lead another, parallell life, conducting multiple affairs with men and women, wresting a few sober writing hours out of each morning, retreating to the pantry for a ‘scoop of gin’ at regular intervals.
In 1975, after nearly dying from an alcohol related illness, he dried out. He didn’t drink again and lived openly as a homosexual man from then on. He died in 1982 in his Quincy home with his wife, his children and his lover present.
Cheever taught in the Iowa workshops alongside Raymond Carver and others . He was published in the ‘New Yorker ‘a hundred and twenty times. He was award winning. His prose, which began as spare as Hemingway’s, gradually became lusher and more surreal. His journals, published posthumously, are unflinching. They shocked his friends, writers for the most art, John Updike and Saul Bellow among them. He thought of himself as an outsider:
‘I remember the galling loneliness of my adolescence…. It is the sense of the voyeur, the lonely, lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people’s contentment and vitality. It seems comical—farcical—that, having been treated so generously, I should be struck with this image of a kid in the rain walking along the road shoulders of East Milton .’
In the ‘Swimmer’ Neddy Merrill begins his journey content and vital but becomes that wondering boy, using alcohol to dull questions, looking in at other’s fortune.
The story is available online in a myriad of formats. Read it. Tell me what you think.
Of course this means my book list is getting longer.