My Favorite Short Story: The Swimmer by John Cheever

My Favorite Short Story: The Swimmer by John Cheever

Deep Thinking About Great Books Studied 24 Famous Short Stories in March of 2018. This One Was My Favorite

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?The pool, fed by an artesian well with a high iron content, was a pale shade of green.?

?The Swimmer? by John Cheever was first published in The New Yorker in 1964.

The story immediately became an object of fascination in literary circles for its surprising blend of realism and surrealism and the emotional punch it delivers.

It was adapted into a movie starring Burt Lancaster in 1968.

The Swimmer movie adaptation in 1968 was a failure when it was released but has since gained cult status. Roger Ebert called it ?a strange, stylized work, a brilliant and disturbing one.?

?The sun was hot. Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin.?

In March, my reading group, Deep Thinking About Great Books, read 24 of the most acclaimed short stories of all time, as selected by members of the group.

These were the stories we read:

Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel HawthorneA Rose For Emily by William FaulknerThe Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins GilmanThe Pedestrian by Ray BradburyCat Person by Kristen RoupenianThe Snow Pavilion by Angela CarterThe Swimmer by John CheeverGoing to Meet the Man by James BaldwinChicamauga by Ambrose BierceThe Man in the Black Suit by Stephen KingThe Call of Cthulhu by HP LovecraftThe Smoker by David SchicklerA Very Old Man With Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia MarquezFlight by John SteinbeckHills Like White Elephants by Ernest HemingwayWe Can Remember it For You Wholesale by Philip K. DickThe Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark TwainHarrison Bergeron by Kurt VonnegutThe Sentinel by Arthur C. ClarkeThe Lottery by Shirley JacksonEmergency by Denis JohnsonWhere Are You Going, Where Have You Been by Joyce Carol OatesMetamorphosis by Franz KafkaThe Child?s Story by Charles Dickens

I loved many of them (and disliked a few) and, for me, one story stood out. The Swimmer by John Cheever, with its aching nostalgia for a youth that has already passed, and the surreal way its protagonist slips out of recognizable reality and into what feels like a dream, absolutely floored me.

It became, and remains, my answer to the question, ?What?s your favorite short story??

In The Swimmer, a man is enjoying a lazy afternoon by the pool at a neighbor?s house when he realizes that he can map a kind of river of swimming pools in his mind, a river that leads all the way back to his home.

He names the swimming pool river Lucinda, in honor of his wife, and begins traveling it.

?The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.?

The way this story starts out in the real and travels into the surreal, the way a journey through a neighborhood becomes an imaginative adventure worthy of an explorer crossing the ocean or charging into outer space, the way his neighbors become the inhabitants of faraway and new lands, people that must be treated with respect because he is a guest on an adventure, one who requires their hospitality?

And then how the story changes?

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The Swimmer starts out so promising and full of hope, but things start to change. The pools get colder and harder to swim through. The neighbors become less friendly. A storm passes through.

?A masterpiece of mystery, language and sorrow. It starts out, on a perfect summer morning, as the record of a splendid exploit . . . and ends up as a kind of ghost story.? ? Michael Chabon on The Swimmer

By the end of the story, you realize the journey is nothing like what you thought it would be when it started, and that you?ve been reading a story about nothing less than life itself

If you haven?t read this story yet, it?s available as a PDF here, but I recommend that serious readers get a paper copy of The Stories of John Cheever, one you can hold in your hands and savor, slowly, maybe with a cup of coffee at your side and occasional breaks to look out the window.

Here are a few quotes from the story I wrote down as I was reading.

?The water refracted the sound of voices and laughter and seemed to suspend it in midair.?

?It was suddenly growing dark; it was that moment when the pin-headed birds seem to organize their song into some acute and knowledgeable recognition of the storm?s approach.?

?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.?

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Spencer Baum is the author of 7 novels. He is releasing the audiobook of his most recent novel as a free podcast.

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