The Swimmer (short story)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"The Swimmer" is a short story by American author John Cheever, published in 1964 in the short story collection The Brigadier and the Golf Widow. The story was turned into a eponymous film starring Burt Lancaster in 1968.
Originally conceived as a novel and pared down from over 150 pages of notes, it is probably Cheever's most famous and frequently anthologized story. At one point Cheever wanted to parallel the tale of Narcissus, a character in Greek mythology who died while staring at his own reflection in a pool of water, which Cheever dismissed as too restrictive. As published, the story is highly praised for its blend of realism and surrealism, the thematic exploration of suburban America, especially the relationship between wealth and happiness, as well as his use of myth and symbolism.
The story takes place in the affluent suburbs of Westchester County, New York, and focuses on Neddy Merrill, who despite being middle-aged, wants to retain his youth and believes that he is a vibrant individual. He marvels at his trail-blazing idea of "swimming the county". At the beginning of the story, Neddy is at a cocktail party at the Westerhazys' and realizes that by following an imaginary chain of private and public pools in his affluent community he can literally swim home. Next we have a succession of similar scenes, as Neddy enters the backyard of his neighbors, sometimes bursting into a party, sometimes engaging in conversation, and most of the time having a drink - but always swimming the length of their pool. Soon it becomes clear to the reader that something has gone awry.
At first Neddy is well-received in the backyards and pools, but after finding a dried pool and waiting for a storm to pass in a gazebo, he starts to feel tired and disillusioned with his idea. Although he is still determined to go on, he can hardly remember the excitement he first had at the Westerhazys'. Neddy is terribly upset to find out that the Welchers' pool was dry, in fact their house was up for sale. He recognizes that his memory must be failing him or he is repressing unpleasant facts for not remembering what had happened to the Welchers. At the Biswangers’ he is received as a gate-crasher and even their barman treats him with disrespect. He overhears Mrs. Biswanger saying that someone, possibly Neddy himself, showed up one day asking for money since he went bankrupt. Further on, Neddy's former mistress Shirley Adams, whom he cannot even clearly remember having an affair with, tells him that she won't "give him another cent".
Several signs indicate that time is passing more rapidly than Neddy realizes. He slowly observes that each pool is significantly colder and much more difficult to swim. He notices that some of the tree leaves are already yellow. Being midsummer, he tells himself, "they must be blighted". At one point he smells wood smoke in the wind, wondering who could be building a fire at that time of the year. At the Sachses', Neddy asks for a drink, but Helen Sachs tells him they don't have any alcohol in the house since her husband Eric had undergone a massive heart surgery three years before - something that Neddy has no memory of. By the end of the story, Neddy is unable to recognize the constellations of the midsummer sky, instead finding the northern constellations Andromeda, Cepheus and Cassiopeia, implying a change of season.
The story's conclusion Neddy reaches his own house. As he looks inside the locked and deserted home, he wonders why his family is not there anymore. They are gone.
The Swimmer was turned into a movie starring Burt Lancaster in 1968. The film was directed by Frank Perry. However Perry left the production due to creative differences, leaving the scene where Neddy meets his former mistress Shirley Adams unfinished. This final scene was directed by Sydney Pollack.