“The swimmer” by John Cheever

I wrote this piece originally in English and then I translated it into Italian to have it published on Carmilla. It is a very short essay on one of my favorite stories of all times. I did make some personal hints on the author's psyche so before I ventured publishing it I got in touch with the author's son to ask if he was ok with that: he graciously granted me his go-ahead. "The swimmer" is available online here.

John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”: a man past the shadow line.

A wealthy and self assured man just past his midlife, still bearing “the especial slenderness of youth”. He’s at some friends’ house, by their pool, a midsummer day. All the guests are lazily enjoying the mature part of the day, busy with their respective headaches; they all had too much too drink the day before, no-one able to socialize more than this comment with their sleepy skins exposed. But Ned, he’s a man with an “inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools”, and he has a “vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure”. So he steps up from the pool curb with an idea: he shall swim all the way home. His house lies eight miles south. In the suburban area where he lives, he can be “taking a dogleg” and reach his home by water, swimming across all the pools he finds along his path: 15 private pools and a public one to create his “contribution to modern geography”. He knows each of them, recalls the owners’ names one by one like a mosaic, a “string of swimming pools”. He will “name the stream Lucinda after his wife” even though she is not reacting when he tells her he’s going to swim home.

It is the midday of the midsummer, and he is a man at his climax. He is a man with a destiny, an explorer, a pilgrim; his mission would be best accomplished without wearing trunks, were it possible. He will go on this journey and his friends will welcome him all along the way, they “would line the banks of the Lucinda River”.
Indeed, the first ones do to such an extent he has to finally sneak away, the seconds are having a party and he comes as a “marvelous surprise” there too. He passes another, gets one more drink, and crosses the street into a property that he finds out being devoid of people: a party has recently finished and remnants of food and drinks are still available for another drink: he is alone there, had nearly swum half his way, and he is “pleased with everything”.
There and then, it suddenly turns cloudy and thunder rumbles while it grows dark. Birds make their song acute for the approaching storm and he shelters under a gazebo while the rain pours, looking at the Japanese lanterns the owner had bought in Kyoto, wondering if it had been one year before, or two? And what is the time? How long has he been wandering for? The sense of time begins to dilute. A maple tree stands naked after the powerful stormy winds and its leaves are scattered down, conveying a “peculiar sadness at this sight of autumn”.
He expects to see horses in the next house’s riding ring, but there’s none. He can remember something about that family and their horses but the memory is unclear there, too. And moving to the next house, he finds the pool dry. Not only so, but everything there is shut, locked, tarpaulined. And again, hadn’t they thanked no to the house owners’ invitation just recently, just one week before? A “FOR SALE” sign is nailed to a tree. “Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of truth?”.

The last part of his journey is yet to be accomplished. More than half is done, but the difficult bit is ahead. Shielded only by his trunks, he has to cross Route 424: a quasi-naked man, confronted by lines of untamable traffic stands barefoot in the deposits of the highway, looking like a fool. He is laughed at, jeered at: he has lost every straw of dignity, his integrity. He made no vows, no pledge, but still, he cannot go back to his wife at their friends’ pool party, lull himself back into the voices claiming they had drunk too much: no return is possible. Conradian shadow line being crossed, he cannot even precisely recall where he is coming from, his memory fails him. Was it is really one hour ago?
It takes him half an hour exposure to cross the highway, and once on the other side, the intimacy of his circle fades: his next pool is a public one, and no-one knows him there. The Center’s regulation consider him unclean and demand a thorough wash of body and feet. He is downgraded. Water stinks of chlorine and it feels contaminating in his opacity. In the water he is bumped, splashed, jostled, and shouted at by the lifeguards calling him out: he bears no identification disk.
Out of there, he enters into a wood that is part of the estate of a couple of elderly friends, known for being “zealous reformers”. The (Dantesque) wood is unclear and the footing is difficult until he reaches the lawn with the clipped beech hedge encircling their pool: leaves are yellow and blighted like the maple tree. The couple residing there wears no clothing in the sun, so Ned “stepped politely out of his trunks” before entering the pool area. The lady is reading a paper while her husband is scooping dead leaves out of the pool. They welcome him as he explains the nature of his visit. When he emerges from his swimming length, she tells him she is sorry about his misfortunes, but he does not know what she is talking about. “We heard that you’d sold the house and that your poor children…” but he does not “recall” having sold the house, and the girls are home, he says. Melancholy falls upon the woman, who only sighs and says yes to him, wishing him a nice trip.
Putting back on his trunks he finds them too lose: has his body changed in this short span of time? His arms are lame and his legs joints ache: will he ever be able to get warm again? Falling leaves all around him, he needs a drink. Only whisky can help him to regain his confidence. Going down a path from there he reaches another place where another couple he knows lives: he greets them and politely asks them if he could possibly get a drink. But he cannot: there is no alcohol in the house since the husband’s operation, three years before. How is it possible he would not remember the fact of his friend having been ill? He sees some three very long scars his friend bears on his abdomen, one of them swallowed up his navel: “no link to birth”, a breach in the succession.
The wife kindly invites his to get a drink at a house nearby, from which the sound of a loud party is heard. Ned knows these people: they always invite them to their parties but Ned and his wife never accept their invitations. In fact, their parties include very ordinary people from all sorts of social status, that is why Ned and his wife never mingle with them. So he is expecting they will feel honored by his presence, while the hostess comes towards him bellicosely instead, calling him a “gate crasher” and just allows him to get a drink. While he does so, he hears her saying “They went for broke overnight – nothing but income – and he showed up drunk one Sunday and asked us to loan him five thousand dollars”.
He swims and goes, heading for his last but two pool: he is convinced that there is where all his “injuries” would be cured. The house belongs to his ex lover, with whom he had a light-hearted relationship, ended just some short time back, or was it a year? He is again unable to remember. But she confronts him with some brutality “If you have come here for money I won’t give you another cent”. He does not get a drink either, she is not alone, she says. He swims her pool too, but he is unable to hurl himself up onto the curb and must climb out through the ladder. Leaving the place he smells scents of autumnal flowers, strong as gas, and staring at the sky he sees stars have come out but they are not midsummer constellations: no Andromeda, Cepheus or Cassiopeia. He starts to cry. Almost won by fatigue, he barely manages to swim the last pool, that shows no sign of life. Finally, he gets home only to find out there is no-one there, the house is empty, doors are locked and rust comes into his hands from the handles.

Reading this story as the decline of the hero who is passing from his top of maturity into decay is far too easy. Nevertheless, it is interesting to analyze each of the symbols John Cheever is using, and the inner quotations and tributes paid to the literature he liked (especially Dante and Kafka, with hints to Hawthorne).
Therefore, there are other issues that can be underlined in the effort of adding something new in this short essay.
Staying with this metaphor of failure and decay, it is worth noticing that the inspiration is probably deriving more from his father figure and his relevant history, rather than from the author himself. In fact, his father went through the same kind of experience of the Swimmer: from being a wealthy man living in a large Victorian house, he faced a financial crisis and lost all his possessions from the mid-twenties to the mid-thirties. He started to drink because of this, suffering not only the discomforts of poverty but also its humiliation. He finally went bankrupt, and shortly after he separated from his wife.
In fact, what is peculiar about this story is the fact that in Ned’s journey home, it is only women who speak to him: men are either not present or just quiet, somehow subdued; they are holograms, static. The only better description we get of someone is that of the man with the large scars on the abdomen, who’s lost his “link to birth”. This may reflect the pitiful state in which Cheever’s relationship to his wife was at the time of writing this story. While he was deeply troubled by his bisexuality and plagued by alcoholism, he tended to put all the blame of his depressive state onto his wife. However, a psychiatrist who met both him and her, declared that Cheever was so self centered and neurotic that he had “invented” a manic-depressive wife. The powerless (castrated) men in the story could represent the sense of his incapacity to deal with her, the feeling of being a victim, being belittled by an encumbering female presence. In fact, it appears as if his own negative judgment on himself is wholly projected on women, especially on his wife.
Actually, taking into consideration how women treat him from the beginning to the end of his journey, there is a sentimental progression from a state of love and cheerful reception of his appearance into their gardens (the first two women he meets both say “what a marvelous surprise” it is to see him), to a gradual lack of interest. As he progresses, women are less and less welcoming, start feeling pity for him, and at the they finally become hostile towards him. In the last house they are not even there, and when he reaches his own, not even the women of his family are there: his house is locked and barren. This progression is indeed similar to that of a marriage from its first enthusiasm to its end, and the sense of loss and loneliness that follows after a separation.
Children are missing, too. We know they exist (we learn Ned has daughters) and we have every right to expect there will be some children in the other families too, but there is no sign of them, not a single testimony of their existence in any of the gardens: not a toy, or a shrill.

The perception of memory fading, the confusion and loss of sense of time is clearly connected to the alcohol addiction but it goes further indicating also a mental decay of the elderly, their ability of remembering occurrences of the far past but not the recent ones. In this case, the end of the story with the rusted handles suggests clearly that the time elapsed from Ned’s beginning of the journey in the afternoon and his arrival to his house would be more likely fifteen years rather than five hours.
In fact, the Lucinda River Ned is trying to swim appears to be a metaphor for life: getting harder and harder to navigate, more tiring, unendurable. The body starts to ache, loses strength and integrity, must give up on some acts that would be performed slenderly before. At the end he must give up and leave the water, to reach his life conclusion: the barren house where he does not belong any more. Life has abandoned him, rejected him.

I owe reading this story to my friend Marta, so this little contribution is dedicated to her.