One of John Cheever's most famous stories is called 'The Swimmer'. It is set, like much of his fiction, in the lawned suburbs somewhere outside New York City, and it is filled, like most of his fiction, with despair. The hero, Neddy Merrill, the father of four daughters, is sitting by a neighbour's pool drinking gin when the idea comes to him that he might reach home by doing a lap of all of his neighbours' pools on the way. In the pages that follow he is both a mythical hero of the suburbs and a holy fool; he is both a legend in his own dreams and a ridiculous figure, a character whose reality is evoked by the close detail with which his world is described, but who is also a victim of his own imaginings. There is a realism in the way the detail and the characters are evoked which forces the reader to believe that this is actually happening - that Neddy is really swimming home, pool by pool - but there is also something else going on which makes us wonder if the story is a metaphor for something, or a parable. It ends with Neddy's arrival home to find his house dark and its doors locked. 'He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.'
LRB 5 November 2009 | PDF Download