“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.)

“Flight” by John Steinbeck


Yes, I’ve been neglecting my short story reading project for many weeks. I don’t know why, either. It had become such a nice routine to draw a new card from the deck on Saturday morning and find out what story I “must” read next. This morning, though not a Saturday, I decided to start getting back on track. I drew the four of hearts, leading me to John Steinbeck’s story, “Flight.”


(for those who are new visitors to Bibliophilopolis, my annual short story reading projects involves mapping out fifty-two stories to read during the year [52 weeks, 52 stories!] and assigning each story to a playing card in a 52-card deck, roughly organizing the suits as follows:

Hearts: Favorite Authors
Clubs: Famous Authors I may or may not have read
Diamonds: Female Authors
Spades: Ghost, Scary or Sci-Fi Stories

Once a week (in theory anyway) a new card is drawn from the deck and “fate decides” which story I will read next, sometimes with curious coincidences.
A list of all the stories on my list is found on my page on the left titled: “Deal Me In” – 2012 Short story reading selections. I encourage everyone to try this as an annual project some year.)

Since Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors, his story was in the hearts suit. It resides in my library in an old badly used (by a former owner, of course!) anthology of thirty six stories titled “Short Story Masterpieces” edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine. I don’t remember where I picked this one up, but I’m a sucker for anthologies, and its condition didn’t deter me. It was first published in 1954 and contains several of the stories in my 2012 reading project.

(Below: a young John Steinbeck)


***Some Spoilers follow***

Though a little disappointed in the story overall – it WAS Steinbeck, after all, and I “expected more” – it was still interesting to me. The characters in the story are a young, 19-year old “man,” Pepe and his family, consisting of widowed mother and his two siblings, twelve and fourteen years old. The location is a familiar one to Steinbeck: California.

Easygoing but somewhat indolent, Pepe seems concerned with whether or not “he is a man.” His mother doesn’t think he is yet, saying at one point, “A boy gets to be a man when a man is needed. Remember this thing. I have known boys forty years old because there was no need for a man.” Is this perhaps the moral of the story? It could be, I suppose, but I didn’t really think so.


Pepe’s legacy from his father (long since dead – from a rattlesnake bite: “When one is bitten on the chest there is not much that can be done”) is a black knife, a switchblade from the sound of it. Pepe has become proficient at throwing the knife with lethal force into a redwood post on their farm. The wary reader suspects that such a skill may lead to trouble…

His mother sends him on an errand to Monterey (“alone”) to buy medicine. He views this as a rite of passage via which he will “become a man.” She directs him to stay the night there at a friends house. He returns early, though, and from the look in his eyes, Mama knows something has happened. There was a quarrel and in reaction to insults – and a threatening approach – the knife had flown from his hand “almost by itself.” We understand he is a fugitive, and the latter two-thirds of the story deal with his flight (there’s that title!) into the nearby mountains and canyons.

Though armed (now with a gun) and possessing some degree of sense, we know it may not be enough to elude and outwit his pursuers, who likely really are men.

I enjoyed the natural descriptions of the land during his flight, and his encounters with wildlife including a mountain lion, a rattlesnake, lizards, etc. I’ll leave it as a homework assignment for you to discover if he is successful or not in his flight. It’s a short story of about twenty pages – easy reading during a lunch hour or on the bus or rail for a daily commute. One place you can find it for free online is here.

What are your thoughts about Steinbeck? Have you read any of his short stories or, like me, mostly just his novels? Where does he rank among your list of favorite authors?