Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Swimmer

I just read John Cheever's "The Swimmer," a classic short story that I had somehow never gotten around to reading. It's the tale, often referenced, of a man (Neddy) who swims across his suburban New York county, one swimming pool at a time, in an attempt to get home.

The story begins in a festive spirit, with Neddy viewing his swim as an adventure worthy of Lewis & Clark. Neddy always plunges into pools, Cheever tells us, never using a ladder, and this is how he begins his journey, with hardly a moment's hesitation. At each pool along the way, he pauses to talk with the owners and have a drink. Everyone is happy to see him. Life is good. We are, perhaps, a little concerned about his constant drinking, and the effect it might have on his ability to swim. And there is some tinge of mystery about his four daughters, whom he expects to find at home when he arrives. But we happily tag along.

Only as Neddy nears his home do we learn that everything is not as it seems. He has a talent for suppressing the unpleasant, and it turns out that he has lost his home, his money, and possibly his daughters. He is, in the end, as delusional as one might expect such a swimmer to be.

I love the structure of this story because, as with "The Best Year of My Life" or "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face," the cross-county swim gives us a clearcut destination, a well defined arc that we will readily trace, knowing (roughly) where we are headed and how long it will take us to get there. (In TBYOML, the arc was the course of a pregnancy; in TSOHCF, it was a baseball game.) Of course, it's also important that the outcome of the arc be uncertain: will he make it all the way? The answer turns out to be yes and no; he physically arrives at his home, but only to find it abandoned, empty, dilapidated. It is not the home he remembered.

I wonder how Cheever developed this story. Did he begin with the fanciful idea of swimming across the neighborhood, one pool at a time, and then figure out why a man would do this, and what the outcome would be?

There are almost always three obvious answers to a dramatic question: yes, no, and maybe. And then there's the fourth best thing, which avoids or restates the question, but is (we hope) satisfying nonetheless. To simply have Neddy arrive at home and see his daughters and reflect on his great swim would have been pointless. To have him fail to get home would have been cheating the reader; after all his jumping in and out of pools, we are waiting to see him get home, and we sense that the payoff will come when he gets there. The answer is yes; the answer is no; it is, perhaps, the fourth best thing.