The Swimmer

John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” follows a man, Ned Merrill, as he attempts to ‘swim home’ from a midsummer suburban party: “He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.” Pool by pool, house by house, his world begins to shift and change in inexplicable lurches—the leaves turn and fall, people have gone away, his memory seems to sputter in and out, the stars in the sky are wrong. In a 1976 interview with the Paris Review, Cheever calls “The Swimmer” “quite a good story” but admits that it was “terribly difficult” to write. Cheever elaborates:

I couldn’t ever show my hand. Night was falling, the year was dying. It wasn’t a question of technical problems, but one of imponderables. When he finds it’s dark and cold, it has to have happened. And, by God, it did happen. I felt dark and cold for some time after I finished that story. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the last stories I wrote for a long time.

Stephanie Harrison appears to have read the same interview in her consideration of the Cheever adaptation, and puts forth the idea that “his own alcoholism at the time played a part” in these “imponderables” (367). Certainly, “The Swimmer” is a story about drinking as much as it is about swimming; Cheever claimed that he “often used the image of the swimmer, the runner, the jumper” in his work as a stand-in for his own disregard for the act of looking back: “The point is to finish and go on to the next thing. I also feel, not as strongly as I used to, that if I looked over my shoulder I would die” (Paris Review). Yet the story opens with a hangover; the cloud of booze and regret and small-town gossip hangs heavy over the piece, permeating the story to follow:

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. (“The Swimmer”)

The film is booze-soaked in much the same way, as Burt Lancaster drinks and swims, swims and drinks; everything and everyone appears damp or soaked, wet hair and swimsuits standing in for sodden livers and lives. At one point Burt, as Ned, has a conversation with his friends:

Ned Merrill: Remember how we used to take off our suits and swim for miles up that river? We just never got tired.
Stu Forsburgh: Yeah. We had nice, new, pink lungs in those days.
Ned Merrill: And the water up there. Remember? That transparent, light green water. It felt different. God, what a beautiful feeling. We could’ve swum around the world in those days.
Stu Forsburgh: That was before we ever touched a drink, or a cigarette.
Donald Westerhazy: Or a girl!

The film follows the story relatively closely, and keeps much of the structure, with a similarly blurry line between realism and inexplicable delusion, although it changes the actual storyline to focus more on the romantic and sexual relationships of Ned. The New York Times review asserts: “Although literal in style, the film has the shape of an open-ended hallucination. It is a grim, disturbing and sometimes funny view of a very small, very special segment of upper-middle-class American life.” This hallucinatory quality is referred to obliquely in the trailer for the movie, which entices with the claim that it is “an exciting, different film” and twice asks the moviegoer: “when you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?”

In 2011, Irish novelist Anne Enright chose the story “The Swimmer” to read for the New Yorker’s audio podcast, expressing surprise that it hadn’t been chosen before. When asked when and where she first encountered the story, she answers in the same breath with a story about reading it at University and the image of “Burt Lancaster in those black swimming trunks;” clearly the visuals of the adaptation have permeated her memories of reading the story. Additionally, there’s a sort of cognitive dissonance in hearing this story, which everyone relates to strongly to a very specific type of American experience, read out loud in an Irish accent—something the podcast doesn’t particularly address, but is interesting in light of the vision of Americana that Lancaster clearly represents for people (in this movie, and in general).

I’ll conclude with a quote from that same Paris Review interview from Cheever on adaption, to do with what you will:

Writers of my generation and those who were raised with films have become sophisticated about these vastly different mediums and know what is best for the camera and best for the writer. One learns to skip the crowd scene, the portentous door, the banal irony of zooming into the beauty’s crow’s-feet. The difference in these crafts is, I think, clearly understood, and as a result no good film comes from an adaptation of a good novel. I would love to write an original screenplay if I found a sympathetic director. Years ago René Clair was going to film some of my stories, but as soon as the front office heard about this, they took away all the money.

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