Personal Best: The Swimmer

"The Swimmer" by John Cheever

Published September 30, 1996 9:20AM (EDT)

i read "The Swimmer" for the first time on my bed in the Maryland suburbs, one winter afternoon when I was sixteen or seventeen. I'd been skimming through a battered paperback anthology my grandfather had passed along to me -- "100 Stories Ruined by English Teachers," I think it was called -- starting one after another worn-out old chestnut, quickly moving on, when I reached the famous, classic, puzzling first paragraph that begins, "It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, 'I drank too much last night.'" I knew nothing of such midsummer Sundays, in fact; but I read on, and soon found myself lost in the weird, lovely dreamland of John Cheever's greatest story.

"The Swimmer" is a masterpiece of mystery, language and sorrow. It starts out, on a perfect summer morning, as the record of a splendid exploit -- Neddy Merrill's quest to swim the eight miles from the house of his friends, the Westerhazys, to his own, via the swimming pools of fashionable Shady Hill -- and ends up as a kind of ghost story, with night and autumn coming on, in a thunderstorm, at the door to a haunted house.

Cheever's mastery lies in the handling of Neddy's gradual, devastating progress from boundless optimism to bottomless despair, from summer to fall, from swimming pool to swimming pool, no two alike, each described with Cheever's lyrical precision. This progress Cheever figures through a careful manipulation of the marks of seasonal change -- the leaves on trees, the wheeling of the constellations -- so that as we read the story we feel time passing, before our eyes; feel Neddy losing heart, growing weary, getting old. The story has mythic echoes -- the passage of a divine swimmer across the calendar toward his doom -- and yet is always only the story of one bewildered man, approaching the end of his life, journeying homeward, in a pair of bathing trunks, across the countryside where he lost everything that ever meant something to him.

By Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is the author of two novels and two collections of short stories, including, most recently, "Werewolves in Their Youth."

MORE FROM Michael Chabon

Related Topics ------------------------------------------