“The Chekhov of the Suburbs”

John Cheever’s short story, “The Swimmer”


I had a day off yesterday, so in addition to knocking off almost 200(!) more pages of “A Clash of Kings” I drew another card from my deck to pick a short story, and I got the Jack of Clubs, leading me to John Cheever’s famous short story, “The Swimmer.” (and today’s ’coincidence’ is that John Cheever, the Jack of Clubs, and I all share the same “initials.”)  🙂


Though first published in the magazine, The New Yorker, in 1964 (cover of this issue pictured above – note the 25 cents price) , I acquired this short story in my anthology buying spree of the early/mid-90s when I purchased the hefty “World of Fiction.” It’s one of those ultra thick books with dictionary-like “tissue paper” pages, allowing over 1200 pages even though it’s less than two inches thick (my copy is pictured below, sorry the cover of the book is almost the same color as my table at Panera this morning…). That number of pages allows it to include about 90 short stories, and for $5.98 at Half Price Books, that comes out to about seven cents a story. Entertainment on the cheap!


I had never read this story before, and I don’t believe I’ve ever read any Cheever either, although I was certainly aware of him. I didn’t know what to expect, and – even a few pages in – I was still trying to understand what was going on…

***MINOR spoilers follow***
It starts simply enough, a group of apparently well-to-do couples spending a languid Sunday morning by the pool, all a bit hungover. The protagonist, Neddy Merrill, a man who “…had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools,” hatches the idea that he might be able to make the eight-mile trip home “by water” (not entirely of course, but cutting through private and public swimming pools along the way). Well, this guy’s a bit nuts, I immediately think. He has an imagined map in his mind of the route he will take, and has even named it “The Lucinda River” after his wife. He starts off with youthful vigor and he is infused with a strange energy: “Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends along the way.”

He does well at first, but soon begins to tire and finds that the attitudes of his friends and acquaintances along the way are changing. He faces a difficult “portage” at Route 424, where he presents a strange sight to passing travelers, “standing barefoot in the deposits of the highway – beer cans, rags, and blowout patches – exposed to all kinds of ridicule, he seemed pitiful.” Not too far into the journey even a reader who is sometimes slow on the up-take (like me) realizes that the swimmer’s journey must be allegorical. I won’t spoil the meaning or denouement of this story (partly because I’m not sure I know the former) – but you can read it online for free at: http://shortstoryclassics.50megs.com/cheeverswimmer.html

I did a little On-line research after finishing it, which is when I found out that Cheever was sometimes referred to as “The Chekhov of the Suburbs” (high praise indeed, considering Chekhov’s fame as a master of the short story). I also learned that the story was made into a motion picture with Burt Lancaster (pictured below) starring as The Swimmer.


I’ll leave you with a quotation of Cheever’s I found to be quite amusing:

(From an interview with Annette Grant)
“The legend that characters run away from their authors — taking up drugs, having sex operations, and becoming President — implies that the writer is a fool with no knowledge or mastery of his craft… The idea of authors running around helplessly behind their cretinous inventions is contemptible.” 🙂

What are your thoughts on Cheever? Any favorite stories? (I still have one, “Torch Song,” yet to be drawn in this year’s Project: Deal Me In.)

1 Comment

  1. March 24, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    I really like the house behind Burt in the picture above. I didn’t know there was a movie. i think there is a PBS television adaptation of this one from the late 70’s. The dramatized a bunch of short stories for a series, including at least one by Cheever.

    This one and The Five Forty Eight (I think that’s right) probably tie for my favorite by Cheever. I can see why he would be called the Chekov of the suburbs, though it’s a very particular kind of suburb he wrote about


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