Monday, August 13, 2012

Short Take: "The Swimmer," John Cheever

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1964 short story “The Swimmer” is perhaps John Cheever’s most famous. The story is deserving of its reputation. It’s a brilliantly effective use of fantasy and allegory in a realist setting. Like most of Cheever’s material, it takes place in a upper-class New York City suburb. The protagonist this time out is an athletic middle-aged man who one afternoon decides to act on an alcohol-fueled whim. Eight miles lie between his house and the house of the friends whose party he is attending. He decides to make his way home by swimming every swimming pool between the two. Cheever begins the tale as a humorous portrait of this rather narcissistic fellow and his social milieu. But things turn mysteriously darker as the day goes on. Time, memories, and the title character’s social standing seem to collapse. The summer weather becomes increasingly like autumn, the protagonist goes from being popular to a pariah, and at the story’s end, he discovers that the life he has built for himself is completely gone. The story is an allegory of denial. The person who follows whims with a blind eye to everything else can lose everything before what has happened sinks in. Cheever's telling of the story is superb. When it starts, the fluid prose and humorously observed details of character and setting speed the reader along. The shift into darkness is terrifically well paced. It’s a mystery that suspensefully builds for both the protagonist and the reader. The climactic epiphany manages to be shocking as well as understated. It couldn’t be more powerful, in large part due to the pathos of the protagonist not fully comprehending what the reader now understands. The story may well be Cheever’s most artful treatment of the self-absorbed anomie of bourgeois suburban life. It was originally published in the July 18, 1964 issue of The New Yorker, and is featured in The Stories of John Cheever collection, among many other anthologies.

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