Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Appreciations: John Cheever’s Tale of Midsummer Dissolution, ‘The Swimmer’

“It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’ You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. ‘I drank too much,’ said Donald Westerhazy. ‘We all drank too much,’ said Lucinda Merrill. ‘It must have been the wine,’ said Helen Westerhazy. ‘I drank too much of that claret.’” —Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist and short-story writer John Cheever (1912-1982), “The Swimmer,” originally printed in The New Yorker, July 18, 1964, reprinted in The Stories of John Cheever (1978)

In the middle of yet another ungodly heat wave, there’s nothing like a nice, cool swim.

Well, even a good idea can be carried a little too far sometimes. Just how far—and how wrong—that kind of idea can be was conjured up by one of the great chroniclers of postwar suburbia.

A full immersion in the waters of John Cheever is enough to get you drunk by osmosis, and one of his most anthologized short stories, “The Swimmer,” wastes no time doing so, in this first paragraph.

Even on Sunday, a day not just of liturgical but recreational grace, inebriation cuts across vast cross-sections of the New York suburb in which this tale is set. Not only is the phrase “drank too much” used four times in the quoted paragraph above, but “drank” is italicized in each case.

Even before the title character is introduced, the major cause of his ultimate degeneration has been identified, albeit as a characteristic shared with the friends and ex-friends increasingly nettled by his presence.

“Drunk” is not the only word repeatedly employed throughout the story. So are “seemed” and “might,” with each use attached to an associated image indicating that the perceptions of the protagonist, Neddy Merrill, will be fragmented and unreliable.

In a 1971 essay, Cheever hailed F. Scott Fitzgerald for his “acute awareness of the meaning of time,” with characters who “lived in a temporal crisis of nostalgia and change.”

By the end of this story, the crisis that Neddy Merrill has been denying becomes increasingly apparent, despite his impulsive, startling decision to recapture his youth by swimming the eight miles from the Westerhazy’s pool to his own.

I haven’t yet seen the 1968 film adaptation of thisstory, but it’s hard for me to imagine a better actor to portray Merrill onscreen than Burt Lancaster (in the image accompanying this post). 

Two decades into his film career, the Oscar winner still showed the amazing physique he had achieved as a youthful acrobat. But few actors were better at depicting the complexity and insecurity below this kind of magnetic presence than he was.

Almost as soon as Merrill has conceived his almost surreal ambition, Cheever is undercutting him as a figure of epic self-delusion:

“He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda, after his wife. He was not a practical joker, nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure.”

The irony will only mount as Merrill stops periodically at one party after another, in the course of which he is not only stopped by one hostess but “slowed by the fact that he stopped to kiss eight or ten other women and shake the hands of as many men.”

Midway through his swim (after, not so coincidentally, about a half-dozen drinks), a storm breaks out, and Merrill’s temporal perceptions become progressively unsure. A neighbor had bought Japanese lanterns “the year before last, or was it the year before that?” It’s supposed to be midsummer, but Merrill finds himself shivering, as if it’s already autumn.

Before long, he is finding a less hospitable landscape: neighbors’ properties overgrown with weeds and the doors locked; jeering by passersby as he crosses a highway barefoot; sneers by another hostess at this “gatecrasher”; and remarks and gossip he doesn’t register about his “misfortune.”

While the story is seen entirely through the consciousness of Merrill, the voice of Cheever slips through at times, as when Neddy wonders if he was “losing his memory” or if his “gift for concealing painful facts let him forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, and that his friend had been ill?” 

By the end, Neddy has been exposed as an alcoholic, a philanderer, and a spendthrift whose financial ruin has destroyed his family and left him friendless and locked out of his suburban paradise.

Like the Lucinda River, alcoholism runs like a subterranean stream in a number of Cheever stories, such as “Reunion” and the novel Falconer. But seldom has the psychological dissolution it unleashes been rendered with such irony and phantasmagorical brilliance as in “The Swimmer.”

Cheever shared far more than a thirst for liquor and an equally desperate quest for grace with Fitzgerald: Both also have tempted filmmakers to create on-screen visual counterparts to prose whose shimmering effects are felt primarily in the imagination.

So it was with The Great Gatsby, and so it was in the late Sixties when the husband-and-wife screenwriter-director team of Eleanor and Frank Perry tried to adapt Cheever’s tale of altered consciousness. 

Frank Perry was fired midway through, and even a young Sydney Pollack, hired to complete filming, couldn’t steady a production that had become as uncertain as Neddy’s nautical journey home.

Despite a pleasant on-location experience in Westport, CT (where Cheever made a cameo appearance at a poolside cocktail party, where, Neddy-like, he marveled at a “terrific 18-year-old dish”), the author loathed the finished product of the troubled production. (I’ll have to wait till the next time it comes on TCM to assess the merits of his complaints.)

In a way, Cheever is the missing link between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mad Men (just a few of the many literary references on the late, great series examined in Jenny Tighe's post on the "Bloomsbury Literary Studies" blog). It’s apparent symbolically even in the opening credits of the classic AMC series, in the vertiginous fall suffered by its main character.  

Mad Men’s showrunner, Matthew Weiner, took his time (seven seasons) showing how ad man Don Draper hit rock bottom, just as Fitzgerald took an entire novel to detail the warped promise of its once-dazzling protagonist, psychiatrist Dick Diver.

In contrast, Cheever compressed the story of Neddy Merrill, but the result is the same in all three cases: men fooled by the shimmering surface of the American Dream, with not enough intestinal fortitude to survive the loss of their illusions.

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