The Swimmer

I was prompted to read John Cheever’s The Swimmer when I reported on the listing of his longtime home in Ossining. His widow died in the house they called Afterwhiles in the spring; he passed away some 30 years ago. The Swimmer is one of his darker suburban tales — and that’s saying a lot — chronicling our protagonist’s quixotic attempt to swim home by hopping from one backyard pool to another, crossing a big road wearing just his swimming trunks, braving the chlorine at the public pool (he’s more skittish about this than charging barefoot across what sounds like the Saw Mill River Parkway), crashing a pool party and so on. In the beginning he’s welcomed warmly and plied with stiff drinks. As he progresses, his neighbors greet him with apprehension (he has suffered some loss; there was a scandal, a fall from grace?) and then it’s no longer the same summer day and autumn is coming on and it appears that he doesn’t really have a home to swim to after all. It’s a haunting little story of a summer day spoiled, a season ending, a man forced to contemplate his failures.

Who knew Cheever was a magical realist? Who knew the perils that await WASPs when cocktail hour comes to a close? Everyone, I guess, and I’ve just forgotten. Next on my list “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.”

John Cheever: swimming through suburbia
John Cheever: swimming through suburbia

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