We welcomed 18 people to participate in our workshop’s close reading discussion of an excerpt from The Swimmer, a short story by John Cheever. Although the title and author had been withheld, some participants recognized the passage from the larger work. Others were unfamiliar with it, and this allowed for a variety of observations and perspectives. An initial response connected depression, seeking, and an unhappy life with the sense of running away exemplified by the odd goal to “swim across the county” by way of one backyard swimming pool after another. Our readers noted the disparities of a “stubborn autumnal fragrance… strong as gas” that conjured a toxic atmosphere. In addition, the analogy of a life being looked back upon through this self-imposed challenge was highlighted by phrases like, “looking over his shoulder he saw, in the lighted bathhouse, a young man.” Was our swimmer reflecting back on his youth when he recognizes the aging of his own body where “the strength in his arms and shoulders had gone”?
There was “a ridiculousness” of this journey/challenge noted, and also the revelation that though we may set a goal and strive to achieve it, the achievement may not result in exaltation and a sense of triumph. It may sometimes result in the question “now what?”
Our writing prompt was an invitation to “Take us on a strange journey.” Four writers read their work. We entered the catacombs of Paris via a strange entrance, led by a cousin (referred to as a “loser”) wielding lanterns. This writer asked the question, “If we go into the depths can we be transformed?” The next writer took us on an immigrant journey where we heard “cries lost among others” where a great grandmother is embodied in the bowels of a ship, a visceral journey that makes vivid the depth of heritage. In the shadow of Cheever, the striving for a goal but not yielding triumph evoked a familiar feeling. Our next writer described how when walking the streets at night, she liked seeing “trees towering up to the heavens.” Then one tree struck by lightning smashes to the ground. In this turn of events, what started as NOT a strange journey became one. The writer’s repetition of “tomorrow/tomorrow/tomorrow” created a connection to the unknowable future. Our last reader personified a 2-year-old boy reflecting in a mirror where he saw “sclera lined with ripples of red,” a use of lens language that went beyond literal to metaphorical of how when we look at ourselves we may not actually see ourselves.
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Originally published in The New Yorker, July 18, 1964. Reprinted in The Brigadier and the
Golf Widow (1964) and in The Stories of John Cheever (1978). Copyright © 1978 by John
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I’m swimming across the county.”
“Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?”
“What’s the matter?”
“If you’ve come here for money,” she said, “I won’t give you another cent.”
“You could give me a drink.”
“I could but I won’t. I’m not alone.”
“Well, I’m on my way.”
He dove in and swam the pool, but when he tried to haul himself up onto the curb he found that the strength in his arms and shoulders had gone, and he paddled to the ladder and climbed out. Looking over his shoulder he saw, in the lighted bathhouse, a young man. Going out onto the dark lawn he smelled chrysanthemums or marigolds—some stubborn autumnal fragrance—on the night air, strong as gas. Looking overhead he saw that the stars had come out, but why should he seem to see Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia? What had become of the constellations of midsummer? He began to cry.
It was probably the first time in his adult life that he had ever cried, certainly the first time in his life that he had ever felt so miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered. He could not understand the rudeness of the caterer’s barkeep or the rudeness of a mistress who had come to him on her knees and showered his trousers with tears. He had swum too long, he had been immersed too long, and his nose and his throat were sore from the water. What he needed then was a drink, some company, and some clean, dry clothes, and while he could have cut directly across the road to his home he went on to the Gilmartins’ pool. Here, for the first time in his life, he did not dive but went down the steps into the icy water and swam a hobbled sidestroke that he might have learned as a youth. He staggered with fatigue on his way to the Clydes’ and paddled the length of their pool, stopping again and again with his hand on the curb to rest. He climbed up the ladder and wondered if he had the strength to get home. He had done what he wanted, he had swum the county, but he was so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague. Stooped, holding on to the gateposts for support, he turned up the driveway of his own house.