The Late-Summer Melancholy of ‘The Swimmer’

John Cheever's story is the perfect thing to read as August nears its end

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Nick Ripatrazone
Classics

I grew up in suburban New Jersey, among a patchwork of swimming pools. Wracked by the guilt of one glorious teenage day spent pool-hopping on the rich side of town (sorry Mom; I went to confession), I resigned myself to a daily pilgrimage to Bee Meadow, the public pool, where I spent summer afternoons hopping across the blazing concrete toward the cool water.

Mid-July was the best time: we were deep, lost in summer. We ate obnoxious amounts of pizza and forgot that school existed. We moved according to the season; life was downright liturgical in its rhythms. But come August, during that last rush of swampy heat, coupled with an earlier sunset, we knew the end was near.

I still live in northern New Jersey, and I still find a strange peace in that late-summer melancholy. The awareness that something good is going to end helps me appreciate that it is happening now.

If you appreciate this feeling, as I do, there is no better work of fiction than “The Swimmer,” John Cheever’s 1964 story, which teems with the languid sadness of summer’s final act. The shift between the promise of freedom and an awareness of the coming cold happens so smoothly, so quickly in the story that I am somehow astounded each time I read it.

Cheever himself loved to swim. “I still go swimming every day which leaves me shivering and magnanimous,” he wrote in a 1969 letter, throwing himself into water no matter the temperature or hue. He was fine with ponds (he punctuated his Paris Review interview by skinny dipping in a forest pond behind his home), but he adored pools. Whenever he visited friends, he took a dip, and described their pools with eloquence: “The swimming pool is curbed with Italian marble, lucent and shining like loaves of fine sugar.”

When Cheever wrote “The Swimmer,” he was living in Ossining, New York. He’d left New York City a decade earlier, after first dreading its outskirts. “My God, the suburbs! They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split-level village.” Soon enough, he was converted, knowing the suburbs have their benefits (“in my own house I can shout in anger or joy without having someone pound on the radiator for silence.”)

In Ossining, the Cheevers didn’t have a pool, but their neighbor did. Cheever bribed the neighbor with a case of champagne so that he could swim whenever he wanted. He was fond of saying that he didn’t “work with plots,” but instead worked with “intuition, apprehension, dreams, concepts” — and it was likely there, at someone else’s pool, that Cheever dreamed up his masterful story about swimming and sadness.

You may remember the first line from a high school English class: “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’” The sentence is deft in its passiveness; its syntax is nearly hungover. Cheever brilliantly and quickly narrows his focus to the still-inebriated: the parishioners and Episcopal priest, “struggling with this cassock in the vestiarium.”

Cheever was confirmed Episcopalian in 1955 at All Saints’ in nearby Briarcliff Manor, and went to church there, but did so on his own terms — attending a morning service that had no sermon, so he was largely left to his thoughts: “a level of introspection that’s granted to me at no other time.” He framed his belief in God exactly how one would expect him to, quipping “There has to be someone you thank for the party.”

The first party in “The Swimmer” is at the Westerhazy’s pool where Neddy Merrill, the main character, is a vision of preternatural youth. He sits by the water, “one hand in it, one around a glass of gin.” You can imagine yourself there, knowing that at the right angle, in the right light, you might see yourself — before the vision disappears.

That morning Neddy slid down his home’s banister “and gave the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack” — the detail a mixture of opulence, immaturity, and ancient grandeur that pervades the story. Like Cheever, Neddy was born to swim in pools; they might appear artificial, but they are a natal place. The third person narrator is taken with Neddy, and speaks in his heightened voice: “To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition.”

It was one of Cheever’s go-to stories to read at events, and for good reason: something happens on every page.

Neddy soon decides to leave, but settles on doing so in an unconventional manner. When his wife Lucinda “asked where he was going he said he was going to swim home.” Neddy doesn’t explain how he’ll achieve this feat, and Lucinda doesn’t ask. She’s probably used to him. Neddy, from the first page of the story, is an ass, devoid of humility and, as we soon learn, awareness. As he moves further in the journey the pools become stranger, emptier. At one party, “The only person in the water was Rusty Towers, who floated there on a rubber raft.” Neddy swims on.

Cheever liked the image and symbol of the swimmer; for him, it captured the idea of profluence, moving forward. “The point is to finish and go on to the next thing,” he once said. “I also feel, not as strongly as I used to, that if I looked over my shoulder I would die.” That doesn’t strike me as too melodramatic, but I’m also Italian, and we’re always performing — add Catholicism to the mix, and we’re always performing mortality. Cheever’s Episcopal sense is a tinge different, but he was a fan of ritual. He would say grace before family dinners, which included a revised line from Plato: “Let us consider that the soul of man is immortal, able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus may we live happily with one another and with God.”

The key to understanding and appreciating Cheever is to realize the maudlin and the true are separated by a hair — and sometimes not even that. The highbrow line from Plato? Cheever found it “in the wallet of a beloved friend, after his death.”

Cheever was fond of “The Swimmer,” but admitted it “was a terribly difficult story to write.” It took him a solid two months, and he was miffed when The New Yorker stuffed it in the back of an issue — behind a piece by John Updike. It was one of his go-to stories to read at events, and for good reason: something happens on every page. Neddy is an active character, and Cheever thought things should actually happen in fiction. “Fiction is meant to illuminate, to explode, to refresh,” he said.

If readers pay close enough attention, they suspect something is amiss when Neddy, his interest piqued in a coming storm that might slow his journey, becomes fixated on a small plane overhead. The plane circles above them, and “it seemed to Ned that he could almost hear the pilot laugh with pleasure in the afternoon.” Cheever struggled with the story because he said “I couldn’t ever show my hand,” yet things become continually more absurd from that point forward.

After the storm, Neddy encounters unkempt lawns and lackluster pools. He has to cross the highway to continue his journey: “Standing barefoot in the deposits of the highway—beer cans, rags, and blowout patches—exposed to all kinds of ridicule, he seemed pitiful.” The sentence appears closely after the only section break in the story; a formatting gesture that is followed by a question directed to readers — “At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious?”

In the final quarter of the story, time has passed. Leaves cover the ground. Neddy speaks with the Hallorans, who lounge naked at their pool. He joins the old couple in the bare, and starts to learn the truth about his life. His descent unfolds quickly, like leaves turning all at once.

In the final paragraph, now home and exhausted, Neddy realizes that he has lost everything, and worse, everyone he truly loved. Yet the process and details remain mysterious. The final word of the story is empty, nothing is left to keep him afloat.

It’s a terribly depressing conclusion, but it has to be. “The Swimmer” is about not being grateful, and not being sufficiently aware of the world around you.Cheever’s genius is in making the setting both symbol and substance, a transubstantial literary move. The suburbs are often mocked for being trite and monochromatic, but we often simplify that which we lampoon. Strip malls, soccer fields, bike paths, neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs: the redundancy of the suburbs can be strangely hypnotic, and comforting.

If you’ve ever lived in the suburbs — or even spent a day there — you might understand the sense of hate and love we have for those spaces. The suburbs are an especially acute place for nostalgia; they tend to amplify emotions of love and longing, possibility and constraint. The perfect place to read this story, perhaps poolside.

Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, and The Atlantic. His Twitter is @nickripatrazone.