Friday, November 11, 2016

"The Swimmer" (1964)

Read story by John Cheever online.

This John Cheever story, according to Wikipedia, "is probably Cheever's most famous and frequently anthologized." That surprised me a little. I knew the 1968 movie version with Burt Lancaster, which I saw on TV in the '70s and thought was strange, but I somehow never tracked back to the story until recently. It was a complete surprise to me—it's like a full-blown phantasmagoria out of Nathanael West's Day of the Locust. It opens on what feels like a typical Cheever scene, a warm Sunday in midsummer someplace in the suburbs, where Neddy Merrill ("Neddy Merrill") is attending a friend's pool party. He realizes that the wealth of that neighborhood had become such that enough people he knows have swimming pools now that he could figuratively swim all the way home from the party, and he sets out to do that. He enters backyards, flops into the pools, swims their lengths, and moves on. Some pools are crowded with people at more pool parties, people who know him and hail him and offer him drinks. Some are abandoned—one is even empty. Merrill tries to remember the rumors he'd heard about that family, who are gone now apparently. Midway, Merrill notices a maple tree shedding red and yellow leaves. He assumes it must be blighted as fall is still weeks and months away. Next, he reaches a stretch of busy roads and no swimming pools. The people in cars jeer at him, wearing only his swim trunks. From then on, the scenes are increasingly forbidding, harsh, cold. Some of his friends say they're sorry for his troubles, but Merrill doesn't care to know what they are talking about. Increasing signs of the passage of time occur. It's fall now—or more blight. Merrill has no idea what people are talking about when they offer their sympathies, or when they are unexpectedly hostile. He keeps plunging in and swimming the pools, but we are more acutely aware than ever of his vulnerability, wearing only swim trunks, and the pointlessness of his mission in the face of all the strange evidence. The whole thing plays like a dream, with its pivots and dislocations. It starts outs as suburban parties echoing through the mind of the sleeping dreamer, before the turn to anxieties and other monsters from the unconscious. What starts out as a lark starts to look more like lunatic behavior, derangement, psychic collapse. When he finally arrives at his home no one and nothing is there. It's just an empty house where he lived once. I don't think I'm giving anything away here? It's not exactly a twist ending, playing off expectations. If anything, it's a twist middle. It feels like a dream, reading it, and it sticks with you. I liked the movie, but this story is way better.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

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