‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

In the space of an hour, more or less, he had covered a distance that made his return impossible.

Published in the same year as Ballard’s ‘The Terminal Beach’, ‘The Swimmer’ is a very different kind of story, although we might say that both are dreams about sorts of endings. Cheever’s premise is in many ways as strange as Ballard’s, but instead of roaming through a post-nuclear wasteland, his protagonist Neddy Merrill leaves a boozy Sunday afternoon party in well-heeled suburbia to “swim home” by connecting all the pools in the gardens of various friends and acquaintances; “that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.”

Beginning vigorously, joyfully, in the golden glow of midsummer, amongst flowering apple trees, Ned’s dreamlike journey quickly becomes freighted with an “unseasonable melancholy”. As he progresses, he is snubbed and his integrity is questioned and the weather seems to cycle through the seasons: leaves lie upon the ground, the air begins to chill, and one of the last pools he swims has a “wintry gleam”. His strength is fading too. At the beginning of the story, we learn that he has an “inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools.” Yet, at the end, in his own neighbours’ garden, “for the first time in his life, he did not dive but went down the steps into the icy water and swam a hobbled sidestroke that he might have learned as a child.” What has happened? Ned, or time itself, has become unmoored. Finally, he arrives at his house to find it locked up and empty. There is a kind of perfection to the way Cheever achieves all this. His glistening prose seems absolutely effortless. 

First published in The New Yorker, 1964, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, Harper & Row, 1964, and The Stories of John Cheever, Alfred A. Knopf, 1978

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