Monday, March 16, 2009

The Swimmer by John Cheever

There wasn't going to be a Short Story Monday post this week. Therese Raquin has been so enjoyable that I didn't want to stop for a story. But, as I was perusing some blogs on Sunday morning, I came across Sam's review of The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever. It sounded so appealing that I had to read Cheever - now. None of his novels are on my shelves, but I did find a story in my Norton Book of American Short Stories.

The Swimmer was published in 1964 and may be Cheever's most famous short story. It opens memorably with the line:

"It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, "I drank too much last night." "

We meet the main character, Neddy Merrill:

"He might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis racket or sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather."
While at a party, Neddy decides to swim home across Westchester county following a route (named Lucinda River, after his wife) of swimming pools with short portages in between.

"Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew he would find friends along the way; friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River."

It is a gorgoeus summer day and Neddy's main thought is how to avoid having a drink at each friend's pool without being rude, as this would delay his arrival at home. However, about half way there, a storm occurs and later, people aren't quite as glad to see him.

"I'm swimming across the county."
"Good Christ. Will you ever grow up"
"What's the matter?"
"If you've come here for money," she said, "I won't give you another cent."

Time seems to have passed - leaves are falling and the wrong constellations appear in the sky.

"Looking overhead, he saw the stars had come out, but why should he seem to see Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia? What had become of the constellations of midsummer? He began to cry."
The journey has become surreal. Time has become warped. When Neddy finally does reach home, the narrative takes on the feeling of a ghost story. I was very taken with this story and will definitely be reading more of John Cheever.

If you're interested, you can read the entire story here. To see who else is participating in Short Story Monday, click over to The Book Mine Set.


  1. Oooo! I have Therese Raquin on my shelf. You make me very, very curious. . . :-)


  2. Lezlie,
    Therese Raquin is pretty short (under 200 pages), so I hope to finish later this week. It's getting a review written that may take a little longer ;-)

  3. I really need to start participating in Short Story Monday. This one does sound interesting. I've never read anything by Cheever. By the way, I loved Therese Raquin. I can't wait to see what you think of it.

  4. Lisa,
    I just started Short Story Mondays last week. My plan is to read a story over the weekend, but that may be hard if I'm really involved in a novel.

    So far, I really like Therese Raquin. I want to get to B&N this week to give Cheever's Wapshot Chronicle a 'test read'.

  5. I need to expand my short story reading. I try to introduce fiction to my 9th graders by reading a variety of short stories -- mostly Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry -- but I know there are so many other great short stories out there. I look forward to following your weekly reviews.

  6. I haven't read Cheever before and I admit I don't know much about him. I think I need to look for this Norton seems like you have found some good stuff in there:) Thank you for linking up to the is nice to have it right there after you share it.

  7. Oooooh. This sounds really good. I think I'm going to give it a try. I read Cheever when I was in college, and I think I was too young to understand the hemmed-in problems of married people. It just left no impression on me whatsoever. But other writers who were like that for me have improved with (my) age.

  8. Molly,
    Thank you for the kind words! It's surprising how much I'm enjoying these stories. Until very recently, I have avoided them.

    The Norton anthology is actually my daughter's. She used it for a short story unit in her 10th grade english class, but I see that it is available from amazon. I'm glad you're using the links!

    Thanks for visiting! It's funny, but I've found a lot of authors improve with age for me, too. I hope to read one of Cheever's novels very soon.

  9. Sounds interesting.
    I read this story reviewd here:

  10. Lynda,
    It is a strange, but very interesting story. I'm on the way over to read yours - thanks for the link.

  11. I think Cheever is a genius writer of his particular subject matter. I appreciate his work, but I find that society so depressing with its focus on alcohol and affairs that I have a hard time 'enjoying' the work. I liked his son's book, Selling Ben Cheever. I loved his daughter's book, American Bloomsbury. But again, I find her autobiographical nonfiction difficult because of the subject matter. She mentions a rock in her driveway that was all scarred from drunks hitting it as they left her childhood house at night.

  12. Nan,
    I've loved what little of Cheever's work I've read. The Wapshot Chronicle was excellent, but I really want to read more of his short stories. There was such a focus on alcohol at that time. I noticed it in Updike's story, When Everyone Was Pregnant, which seemed to be his tribute to the 50's. And, of course, Revolutionary Road.

    I didn't realize his children have also written books. I'll have to see if I come across them.

  13. I just read "The Swimmer" at your suggestion-it is a strange Twilight Zone meets Mad Men type of story-I also have read his "The Enormous Radio" and endorse it also-thanks for the suggestion-

  14. Mel U - So glad you chose to read this... and I love your comparison! I will look for "The Enormous Radio". Thanks for the recommendation.


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