Friday, May 18, 2012

The Swimmer

John Cheever (1912–1982)
From John Cheever: Collected Stories & Other Writings

Burt Lancaster as Ned Merrill in The Swimmer (1968).
The one-hundredth anniversary of John Cheever’s birthday occurs later this month, on May 27, 2012. (He died thirty years ago next month, at the age of seventy.) To commemorate the remarkable career of one of the twentieth-century’s most famous writers, we are pleased to present one of his most famous stories. This week’s selection was suggested to us by Lloyd Fassett of Bend, Oregon, who thinks that the story resonates especially now “because of America’s current economic downturn. . . . Though it was written in the 1960s, I think it reflects our time.”

When John Cheever first began writing “The Swimmer,” he conceived of it as a novel—and he actually wrote a good chunk of it before reconsidering. As Blake Bailey relates in his biography, “Soon Cheever suspected he had ‘a perfectly good’ novel on his hands,” but his self-assurance gradually turned to dissatisfaction:
As he began to find the core of the story, he threw away pages and took yet a different approach. The main technical challenge, he realized, could not be sustained over the course of the novel: that is, Neddy could not possibly repress the truth for some two hundred pages. . . .
From the approximately 150 pages of material he had assembled, Cheever carved out his finely honed story. Michael Chabon, who first read it as a teenager, called it “a masterpiece of mystery, language and sorrow. It starts out, on a perfect summer morning, as the record of a splendid exploit . . . and ends up as a kind of ghost story.”

In one way, “The Swimmer” was restored to its original novelistic length, when a 95-minute feature film adaptation starring Burt Lancaster was released in 1968. Although many critics were not enamored by the highly stylized film, Roger Ebert gave it a four-star review: “What we really have here, then, is a sophisticated retelling of the oldest literary form of all: the epic.” Ebert also singled out Burt Lancaster as “superb in his finest performance.” The movie, which was finished by Sydney Pollack when its original director Frank Perry quit the project, has enjoyed an unusually long shelf-life, benefiting from years of late-night television viewings and acquiring of a small yet dedicated following.

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It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.” . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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