Swimming Cross County: Cheever's Short Story

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” John Cheever's The Swimmer made the long list. This is a masterful story that captures the lost life of an aging man in what is seemingly a single afternoon. I had listened to this story on the New Yorker podcast just last fall, and re-read it this week. It had been years since I’d last read the story and I was thrilled to get re-acquainted with it. In the story, Ned Merrill has a preposterous idea for a suburban adventure. On a Sunday afternoon, in which “we all drank too much” last night, he ventures across the county from the Westerhazy’s house to his home by leaping from backyard pool to backyard pool. He calls this series of pools “Lucinda’s River,” after his wife and envisions his home, where his “beautiful daughters would have had their lunch and might be playing tennis.”

“He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.” Along his journey, he stops to sip gin and tonics and chat in the backyards of acquaintances. He explains his quest as if he’s on a great expedition.

Cheever's details are revealing even from the distance in which he writes. Describing Ned Merrill, Cheever writes, He “had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure,” and he “would have liked to swim with trunks, but this was not possible, considering his project.”

Ned covers eight miles, crossing over a treacherous highway where a beer can is thrown at him. At one point, he has a fear he “might contaminate himself” in the public pool. He thinks to himself “This was the day that Neddy Merrill swam across the county.” But in the latter half of the story, his bravado dissipates and we find his perception is somewhat unglued. A neighbor says, “We’ve been terribly sorry to hear about all your misfortunes, Neddy.” He’s not quite sure what to make of the statement, as if he’s living in his own world. By the end of his sojourn, he is exhausted from the mythic trip and finds nobody is home, the house is dark and empty.

What I love about this story is how he pulls off the strange allegory for a man’s life in suburbia. It’s a man’s quest for adventure in what can be a rather dull upscale suburban neighborhood. Ned starts off the day feeling and acting young and the journey appears to age him. He glosses over the misfortunes that others have seen, as though he’s trying to uphold his own dignity. The truth revealed in the final paragraph rings cold and hard in this classic tale.

You can click on the link to listen to the New York Podcast of The Swimmer.

This is the 6th of my 36 reviews of the One Story list, which is part of my summer reading project. Check back for more!