John Cheever’s ubiquitous short story “The Swimmer” was published for the first time—the first of too many to keep track—in the July 18, 1964 edition of The New Yorker magazine. Neddy Merrill’s mythic swim through the swimming pools of his upper-middle-class neighbors was republished for the first time later that same year when it was included in a collection of other short stories by Cheever titled The Brigadier and the Golf Widow.
Like many of Cheever’s stories, “The Swimmer” situates its narrative of that affluent, but not quite wealthy neighborhood within a suburban town where those who made their living working in New York City could commute home by train every weekday. The central character of “The Swimmer” is the self-proclaimed king of that suburban neighborhood, Neddy Merrill, who has seen the best years of his reign slip by. The comparison of an affluent middle-class suburbanite to a mythic king of days of yore is entirely appropriate when one realizes that the second most important character in this story are those swimming pools. Well-maintained concrete ponds they are, to be sure, but their existence as symbol far outweighs any more prosaic concerns a reader may have about the inherent realism in a story about some guy making his way one pool at a time.
That dive into the water is more than a just visit to each individual pool; Neddy’s swim home takes him on a journey through the glorious summer of his past and discontented winter of his lonely, isolated future. Neddy isn’t just swimming through residential concrete bodies of water, but from his rise to being the Big Man on the Cul-de-Sac to becoming an outcast whose presence instills nervous avoidance of direct glances his way. An entire year of seasons becomes symbolic of how Ned loses his place in the sun to wind up banging desolately on the doors of an empty home.
The result is a surprisingly terse story that becomes a modern day legendary journey such as epic poems once devoted to characters like Odysseus. Except that this epic return home is clearly situated within the crass commercial milieu of post-World War II upward mobility. While Neddy is drawn in ways to parallel ancient Greek legends—although clearly a more immature and childish version as indicated by his name—his world is one dominated by cocktail parties, petty adulteries, stock market tips and an overarching and utterly repugnant social acceptance of misogyny as a part of the natural order. The characters who float in and out of Neddy’s surreal state of mind as he moves from pool to pool—occasionally requiring a redirection in order to fulfill his goal of making the trip via water as much as possible—represent an entire lifetime of Ned’s world and reveal the changes and evolutions that have taken place within the America of which his suburban township is a microcosm.
While “The Swimmer” hangs on a pretext of plot, far too slim upon which to build an entire novel, it is worth noting that film adaptation was produced starring a legendary actor then at the very top of his considerable game: Burt Lancaster. Perhaps no other actor could possibly embody the spirit of Neddy Merrill so comprehensively. The film holds a 100% aggregated rating by reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes and the short story upon which it is based remains one of the most often assignment works of American literature in schools across the country.