The Swimmer by John Cheever, 1964
The magic trick:
The heartbreaking contrast between the protagonist’s boyish enthusiasm for his swimming adventure and the crushing reality of his adult failures
Aging is the worst. Mistakes are bad too. Regrets don’t help. Throw in alcoholism and selfishness and you’ve got “The Swimmer.”
It’s awful, maybe even tragic. But these are not new ideas.
So why is “The Swimmer” one of the best stories I’ve read for this SSMT blog? We’ll I’ll tell you…
Ned’s joy in attempting to swim through his neighborhood is so pure it will win any reader’s heart, no matter how much we know his is a corrupted character. We immediately forgive his alcoholic transgressions – that only grow in implication as the story moves on – because his quest seems so innocent, pure, even noble.
But his mistakes of the past are clearly not left behind in the past. They are still affecting his future. That too only grows clearer as the story progresses. The rest of Ned’s reality does not reflect this joyous swimming quest he has adopted. Not at all. The swimming quest is a bit of magical realism dropped into Ned’s story. Sadly, Ned is the only one – reader included – who doesn’t realize this. The difference between his happy perception and the crushing reality is heartbreaking. And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.
“I’m swimming across the county,” Ned said.
“Why, I didn’t know one could,” exclaimed Mrs. Halloran.
“Well, I’ve made it from the Westerhazys’,” Ned said. “That must be about four miles.”
He left his trunks at the deep end, walked to the shallow end, and swam this stretch. As he was pulling himself out of the water he heard Mrs. Halloran say, “We’ve been terribly sorry to hear about all your misfortunes, Neddy.”
“My misfortunes?” Ned asked. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Why, we heard that you’d sold the house and that your poor children . . .”
“I don’t recall having sold the house,” Ned said, “and the girls are at home.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Halloran sighed. “Yes . . .” Her voice filled the air with an unseasonable melancholy and Ned spoke briskly. “Thank you for the swim.”
“Well, have a nice trip,” said Mrs. Halloran.