I’m embarrassed to say that up until recently I’d never read anything of John Cheever, let alone his most famous story The Swimmer.
That’s all now corrected of course, now that I have this lovely new Vintage Cheever collection, weighing in at almost 900 pages; more than half a kilo of prime short lit.
It is a beauty to behold this tome, and if you wait a bit, I just want to reflect on the heft of the thing.
Though I’m secretly pining for a universal electronic ink e-reader, the sheer bulk of this collection is impressive, if not a little intimidating. Sixty one stories in all. The weight in this baby feels good in the same way heavy electronic goods feel good. I feel like I could build a house on four even stacks of Cheever. And if it got cold I could slow burn the collection for a year.
Yes, it feels good, and it reads good too. As I said, I’ve never actually read The Swimmer until a few weeks ago, and though probably too much has been said about it already, I feel compelled to just say a bit more.
I seem to read a fair way behind my birthdate at the moment, generally searching for stories I haven’t heard before. I’ve found a kind of love hatch in 1950s-1970s American fiction. What I like about that era is that it contained authors with both an eye for realism and an ear for story.
Much of the Australian fiction I’ve been reading lately feels suffocated by an overeagerness to convince of the ‘realness’ of Australian stories. The approach leaves little space for experimentation in style and tone, let alone much emphasis on premise. I like the real, but why not a take it with a mixer of surreal every now and then?
The Swimmer then is a good leading man to get into Cheever. You probably know the premise: a man decides to swim a chain of backyard pools across his neighbourhood and back to his home. As the premise suggests, things start out quite whimsical, but as each pool is mastered, the swimmer’s gusto wanes. You soon realise that another, more poignant, story is being told alongside the first, and that darker, more somber tale reaches its peak as the swimmer closes in on his final destination.
I love this story for the way it gradually shifts in tone as you read it, ending in an emotional place far from where you expect it to. I feel that when writing it, Cheever was acutely aware of what lay on the table and how to play with it.
A man deciding to swim home through a string of backyard pools is a strong premise. But to rely on it solely would likely have only created a clever story, not a brilliant one. Instead, Cheever uses the premise like a surgical instrument to reveal the deeper more harrowing story of the swimmer. It begins a premise story, it ends a character story, losing neither strength along the way.
Ok enough. Let me just give you a sample and we’ll be done with it:
The only maps and charts he had to go by were the remembered or imaginary but these were clear enough. First there were the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups. He would cross Ditmar Street to the Bankers and come, after a short passage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the public pool in Lancaster. Then there were the Hallorans, the Saches, the Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gilamartins, and the Clydes. The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high and he ran across the grass.
You can read the full text of The Swimmer online at Short Story Classics.
Add your comment