Wednesday, August 8, 2018
August 8, 2018: Swimming Pool Studying: Cheever’s Swimmer
[Ahead of my annual trip to Charlottesville with my sons, a trip that always features a good deal of swimming pool action, a series on pools and swimming in American history and culture. Leading up to a special weekend post highlighting one of my favorite pieces I’ve had the chance to write in the last year!]
On the pitch-perfect story from one of our true American greats.
There’s only so much room in our collective consciousness, and within that space there’s similarly only so much room for creative writing—which is to say, I understand that not every deserving author is going to be remembered. And I certainly get why John Cheever has largely vanished from our collective memories—like his contemporary John Updike (who similarly is less well-known than he was a few decades ago, although the shift has not been as dramatic in Updike’s case), Cheever tended to write stories about middle to upper-middle class men and families, characters whose identities and communities don’t seem quite multi-cultural enough, nor their problems significant enough, for our 21st century moment.
There would be various ways to push back on those ideas, to argue that our literary canon can and should contain Cheever and Jhumpa Lahiri, and as many other voices as possible. But the simplest and most vital argument might be this: like Lahiri, Cheever was quite simply a master of the short story; there’s no experience quite like reading a perfect short story, and Cheever produced at least a few works that make it into that exclusive category. One of his very best also happens to fit this week’s series perfectly; it’s called “The Swimmer” (1964), and it’s about … no, enough from me. Just read it at that link, and lose yourself in the deceptively shallow waters of Cheever’s funny yet tragic, satirical yet sympathetic tale.
You know what? There’s not only so much room in our collective consciousness, not in this 21st century world of digital archives and virtual classrooms and ever-expanding conversations. If we can work to remember any great writing, we can work to remember all of it—and Cheever and his story are a pretty good place to start.
Next pool tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?