A Response to Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’

John Cheever’s The Swimmer was brilliant and depressing at the same time. I had a difficult time getting into the story at first, but once I realized he was swimming all the pools in the county to get home, I was quite intrigued. Then, when the weird details started popping up – such as how early it is getting dark and how rapidly the leaves seem to be changing – I was even more hooked.

Cheever’s choice to reveal the truth about Ned’s life just a half a step ahead of Ned himself finding out was a successful one. Because the story is in third person, we see all the little hints at the same time as Ned does, but we can make sense of them before he thinks it all through. This adds to the aspect of tension, prompting the readers to try to figure out all the details and to wonder, When will Ned figure out what’s going on? I guess it’s kind of in line with the idea of suspense instead of surprise. Ned doesn’t just swim through the town all happy then come home to an empty house on an Autumn night that causes him to realize his sad life story. We are told something bad has happened to him fairly early on; it’s just the particulars we still need to figure out, so we keep reading.

Though I’ve finished the story, I’m still not one hundred percent certain what happens in it. Has this really occurred in one day, with Ned simply having a skewed perception of time and not realizing the true date until the end? Or is this adventure through backyards and swimming pools something he does regularly, his growing fatigue a sign of how he’s actually aged? Cheever leaves the reader with less questions answered than not, but this works to his advantage (think of the ending of the movie Inception).

Another thing I want to note – this idea of Ned swimming home by way of the neighborhood swimming pools and calling them the Lucinda River made me think that this could be a poem rather than a short story. Doesn’t a river of swimming pools sound like something that would be touched upon in poetry? (I guess this Repurposed Art assignment has me thinking this way.) Overall, The Swimmer was quite inventive.