Swimming Home with John Cheever

I recently re-read John Cheever’s The Swimmer, possibly my favorite short story of all time, and was left marveling at Mr. Cheever’s skill and talent as a writer. Every time I’ve read this story, I’m amazed at his ability to take us along on one man’s voyage through an experience that does or does not actually happen. A friend asked me if I had seen the movie. Movie? I had no idea. I was curious, to say the least. I couldn’t imagine such a surreal story being committed to the screen. Before long Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack’s The Swimmer was in my Netflix queue.

The story (published in 1964) and the movie (filmed in 1968) start off on a perfect summer morning. It’s Sunday at the Westerhazy’s in an affluent suburb where everyone is sitting around the swimming pool saying, “I drank too much last night.” One of these people is Ned Merrill — a spunky middle-aged man who suddenly has a revelation: he is going to swim back to his house, eight miles down the road, via the swimming pools in the county. Cheever describes Ned’s plan as follows:

First there were the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups. He would cross Ditmar Street to the Bunkers and come, after a short portage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the public pool in Lancaster. Then there were the Hallorans, the Sachses, the Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gilmartins, and the Clydes.

The route requires 15 pools total to swim through, and the afternoon seems full of promise. Before he sets out on his pilgrimage, Ned declares that his route will be called the Lucinda River, named after the wife who is waiting for him at home, along with their four beautiful daughters.

After Ned leaves the Westerhazy’s, time begins to function in a very strange way. Unconsciously, we sense that it may or may not be the same time of day, season, or year. Cheever uses time to show the actual progression of life, the cyclical passing of seasons, the demise of relationships. Like many of his short stories, there are allusions to loss, alcoholism, and the fleeting security of life in suburbia. Each pool is different from the last, bringing Ned closer to a shocking revelation about the way he’s spent his life. The prose takes on a true dreamlike quality. This tricky handling of time makes it seem almost impossible to translate the story into a film, but director Frank Perry gives it an admirable try.

Burt Lancaster stars as Ned Merrill and is perfectly suited (no pun intended) for the role. Lancaster struts around the pools in the movie in nothing more than a Speedo. As a former gymnast, Lancaster shows off his exceptional physique, gliding through the waters of the Lucinda River like a tan, middle-aged dolphin.

It seems like everyone is partying hard on this Sunday because the first couple of pools he visits in the story and in the film are surrounded by people drinking, laughing, and clanging glasses together. And the people keep saying the same thing, “Oh, look who’s here! What a marvelous surprise!” or “I’ve been trying to get you on the phone all morning,” suggesting that Ned has been unreachable for a while.

When he gets to the Hollorans’, an old nudist couple, Ned also takes off his bathing suit. It’s an act of solidarity as he crosses their pool. In the movie, it’s during this scene that we learn something isn’t quite right with Ned. Mrs. Holloran tells her husband that Ned is just there to borrow more money. This scene, along with many others, is drawn out more in the film and we are spoon fed details about what is happening to Ned. In literary form, the pool visits are much shorter and the discovery that something is amiss happens on a more intuitive level.

There are ingredients added to the film to make it more appealing to a movie-going audience. Take for instance, Julie, a pretty teenager, who joins Ned for part of his trip, running beside him in her bikini and tossing her blonde hair in the breeze. In the book there is no such character, but since this is a movie, there’s got to be some sort of sex appeal involved, right? (Other than the macho allure of the main character, that is.) Then there’s an extended sequence between Ned and his ex-mistress, Shirley Adams (named Shirley ‘Abbot’ in the movie and played by Julie Rule). In the story there is a short exchange between the two, but in the movie there’s a rather dramatic argument between the characters. It all centers on the affair they had and the effect it’s had on their lives since.

As a short story, none of these additions are needed to make The Swimmer engaging. Cheever is a true literary master. The narrative is shadowy and surreal, but always clear. The vague progression of time is handled perfectly. And when we get to the end of the story, we understand what has happened to Ned without consciously thinking about it.

Cheever’s story is a sharp observation of the link between affluent suburban life and the death of the American Dream. Teddy is a man who once had a bright future, but by the end of the story it’s implied he’s lost everything: his family, house, and relationships with his once-friendly neighbors. The film is successful in getting Cheever’s message across, but at the cost of some humorously melodramatic moments. Case in point: At the end of the movie, Lancaster falls to his knees on the front steps of his house in the rain and begins pounding on the front door, seemingly having a seizure in the process.

Besides, it’s Cheever’s ability to use language that clearly defines the two mediums. There are passages that could never be filmed in the same way they are written. There’s no way to let somebody cinematically see prose like, “The effect of the water on voices, the illusion of brilliance and suspense”, or “The de Haviland trainer was circling overhead and it seemed to Ned that he could almost hear the pilot laugh with pleasure in the afternoon.” Movies can provide spectacle, but Cheever accomplishes something more magical in the mind’s eye.

According to the IMDb website, there is a remake of The Swimmer planned, starring Alex Baldwin. There are no details available yet, only that it’s “in production”. Why bother? There’s already been one movie made that’s attempted to capture the story, and it was only somewhat successful. I don’t see anyone ever really grasping the essence of The Swimmer except for John Cheever, and his version will always remain on the page, where it belongs.