Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Swimming to Bullet Park

"Any memory of pain is deeply buried."

"It was a terribly difficult story to write. Because I couldn't ever show my hand. Night was falling, the year was dying. It wasn't a question of technical problems, but one of imponderables. When he finds it's dark and cold, it has to have happened. And, by God, it did happen. I felt dark and cold for some time after I finished that story."

Even the best writers go into decline. In the late stories of John Cheever one can detect the strain of an aging storyteller trying to maintain relevance in an era in which he feels that he no longer belongs. A celebrated short-story writer for more than two decades, Cheever had tried to write novels, lengthy ones, but the critical reaction to The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) and the Wapshot Scandal (1964) was that they seemed like loosely constructed and somewhat padded arrangements of Cheever's stories.

Cheever was getting nervous, and he expressed his nervousness by pushing his range. In most cases he did what every artist who begins to consciously shape what used to come naturally to him. In other words, Cheever choked. His famous story, "The Swimmer," which was made into a successful movie with Burt Lancaster, shows the strain of Cheever's trying a new approach to his old material.

The story of a successful man in his forties attempting some absurd physical feat is a familiar one in John Cheever country. Cash Bentley, the protagonist of "O Youth and Beauty!", is "an old track star" who periodically re-enacts his glory days at cocktail parties, until, late one particular night at home, he moves the furniture in his living-room and hands the starter pistol to his wife.

Neddy Merrill, the hero of "The Swimmer," decides one "midsummer Sunday" to swim the eight miles home through the swimming pools of everyone he knows along the way - the Westerhazys, Grahams, Bunkers, Levys, all the way to the Biswangers and the pool of his mistress, Shirley. He names the water course, the "Lucinda River," after his loving wife, who sits with him at Westerhazys pool. His four lovely daughters are waiting for him at home.

Cheever leads us, along with Neddy, through a landscape replete with the signs of a season. But we quickly begin to realize that it may not be the season that Neddy believes it is. Rather than midsummer, many telling clues reveal that it's much later in the year. When the wind from a sudden storm strips a maple tree of its "red and yellow leaves," Neddy accounts for this "sign of autumn" by assuming the tree "must be blighted."

Neddy then finds the Lindleys riding ring strangely "overgrown with grass and all the jumps dismantled." He faintly remembers something about the Lindleys' horses, but isn't sure what it was. At the next stop, he finds the pool has been drained, which leaves Neddy "disappointed and mystified": "It was common enough to go away for the summer but no one ever drained his pool." When had he last heard from the Welchers? And then Cheever makes a tactical error. He gives Neddy just enough presence of mind to try and account for his surprise: "Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it is the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?"

When he finds himself exposed to the jeers of motorists on Route 424, on his way to the next string of swimming pools on his way down the Lucinda River, Neddy wonders: "He could have gone back, back to the Westerhazys', where Lucinda would still be sitting in the sun. Why, believing as he did, that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense, was he unable to urn back? At what point had this prank, this joke, the piece of horseplay become serious?"

He finds further signs of autumn when he notices that the beech hedge at the Hallorans is yellow. But he guesses that it, too, must be blighted. The people he encounters, who have known him for years, begin to disclose their sympathy for some personal misfortune of which Neddy is oblivious.

By the time he reaches his house, Neddy feels he has grown feeble and old. His house is dark, locked up and empty. And we learn the truth: that Neddy's marriage is over and that his daughters have moved away. But what can account for Neddy's strange amnesia throughout the story? The story begs the question: was Neddy's fall traumatic enough to induce such complete forgetfulness of his situation?

The story reminds one of other stories of self-delusion. In Rebecca West's novella The Return of the Soldier, the loss of a child and subsequent trauma in the trenches of the Great War cause Chris Baldry to forget several years of his life. He writes letters to a woman he once loved, whom he hasn't seen in more than a decade. A psychologist is called in to discover a way to restore Chris to the present, even if he is happy in his amnesia. "The truth's the truth," even if it is terrible. "And he must know it."

And there is the American writer Ambrose Bierce's story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," in which a prisoner of war is hanged - but the rope breaks and he escapes down the river. Running and hiding from his pursuers, he finally finds himself in familiar surroundings. He sees his front gate and his wife with her arms open wide to embrace him.

"As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon--then all is darkness and silence!

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge."

Bierce's story, though strange, is consistent with many other of his stories of the Civil War, some of them involving ghosts. It is believable as the fantasy of a man who finds himself within moments of his own death. It is utterly convincing that in his mind he would spend those last moments fleeing to the people and places he most loved.

Neddy Merrill, in Cheever's story, is subjected to no such comparable duress, and Cheever makes no attempt to help us to understand what would cause Neddy to try and live out his fantasy of a stable marriage and family home so drastically. Unless, that is, he's had too much to drink. Cheever begins the story, famously, with this litany:

'It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, "I drank too much last night." You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. "I drank too much," said Donald Westerhazy. "We all drank too much," said Lucinda Merrill. "It must have been the wine," said Helen Westerhazy. "I drank too much of that claret."'

Could "The Swimmer" be nothing more than Neddy Merrill's alcohol withdrawals?

In his short story, "A Miscellany of Characters that will not Appear," Cheever lists seven types that he vows never to admit to his fiction. Among them, at number 5, is "All lushes . . .

out they go, male and female, all the lushes; they throw so little light on the way we live."

This, despite the obvious fact that Cheever's characters do a lot of drinking in his stories, and the fact that Cheever himself had been a lush from an early age until 1975, when, at the age of 62, he finally stopped. Clearly, Cheever was that most terrible of lushes, a "functioning" one - one who found a way to balance the writing of some of the most beautiful American prose with the bingeing, and the hangovers, the agonizing abstinences and the gratifying and disappointing relapses.

Neddy Merrill drinks - as much as he swims - his way down the Lucinda River. He is finally almost begging for a drink from his friends at the last few swimming pools. Auden, in his essay, "The Prince's Dog," points out the only way we can truly sympathize with Neddy:

"His refusal to accept the realities of this world, babyish as it may be, compels us to take another look at this world and reflect upon our motives for accepting it. The drunkard's suffering may be self-inflicted, but it is real suffering and reminds us of all the suffering in this world which we prefer not to think about because, from the moment we accept this world, we acquired our share of responsibility for everything that happens in it."

In an interview, Cheever said:

"I seldom read my own work . . . It's like looking over your shoulder to see where you've run. That's why I've often used the image of the swimmer, the runner, the jumper . . . I also feel, not as strongly as I used to, that if I looked over my shoulder I would die. I think frequently of Satchel Paige and his warning that you might see something gaining on you."

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