The Surreal Swimmer


A writer friend of mine was telling me how much he admired the movie, “The Swimmer,” based on a story by John Cheever. Of course I had to investigate.

Cheever was one of those mid-twentieth-century literary lions, and his story “The Swimmer” is his most famous one and was often anthologized (not anymore: twentieth-century white male authors have fallen out of fashion).

Before seeing the movie, I decided to read the story, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1964. It’s a surreal narrative, focusing on Neddy Merrill, a mid-forties, Westchester County suburbanite. He’s at a neighbor’s pool, feeling energetic and like an explorer, and he realizes he can get back to his house by swimming in various pools in the neighborhood—with some significant portaging in between. He announces he’s taking a journey on the “Lucinda River,” which he names after his wife.

At each pool, he encounters various neighbors, but many of them act hostile toward him: the neighbors that he and his wife shunned socially, the one who almost died during a major surgery but never heard from Neddy, the one he owes money to, and the former mistress who is the most hostile of them all.

Dark clouds appear. Summer now seems to be autumn. We know what Neddy doesn’t: that he is experiencing some kind of dissociative state and has lost touch with reality. He has lost his job and his family, but he doesn’t realize it.

The story is a classic hero’s journey, but in Ned’s case his celebratory enthusiasm for wealth, status, and suburban living slowly erodes in a surreal sequence and ultimately delivers him to his own heart of darkness—his home, or former home, abandoned and crumbling; his wife and two daughters no longer in the picture.

Having read the story, I turned to the movie. Apparently, it’s hard to translate a literary allegory to the screen. The movie, which came out in 1968, was a commercial and critical failure, although I read that it has regained attention as a “cult classic.” Not sure which cult has embraced it.

Burt Lancaster is the star. He spends the entire movie—every minute, every scene—in short, tight swimming trunks, about as close to naked as can be, while around him almost everyone else is dressed. Despite Lancaster being a rather hunky kind of man for his era, it was a little excruciating to watch him.

The movie also adds a couple of extra swimming pool scenes. The most cringeworthy is the one where he ends up at his former babysitter’s house. She’s now twenty. She confesses that she used to have a crush on him. He implores her to join him on his swimming journey and for a while she does, but he gets creepy, starts stroking her stomach (she’s in a two-piece), and tells her he’s going to take care of her and be her guardian angel. She runs off.

At another neighboring pool, he runs into a party and tries to pick up a young Joan Rivers. He says he’s noble and splendid. She scoffs. The scene at the pool of his ex-mistress is long, with Neddy trying to start up with her again, asking her to go away with him, then forcing himself on her. She pushes him away.

White man’s suburban midlife crisis—what could be more ordinary? Except Cheever’s concept is so unique that the story comes off as fresh and stunningly creative. Even today.

I’d recommend taking fifteen minutes to read the story here in The New Yorker, rather than devoting 90 minutes to the film here.

Or if you’re like me, you’ll check them both out.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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