John Cheever's Swimmer and Goodbye, My Brother.

By | on March 6, 2009 | 0 Comment
It’s a very strange experience to be this excited by a writer who hasn’t written anything new since I was in grade school. John Cheever and his legend seem to be taking up permanent residence in my mind. Today I watched John Cheever and John Updike talk for a half an hour about life, baseball, religion, even the difficulties of raising children while finding time to write. The NYT’s has an old interview with the two of them partaking in a mutal admiration society, sheriffed by Dick Cavett, and it’s wonderful, funny, filled with kind words and feelings that pour out of Cheever when he knew he was probably dying. And Updike who seems more flattered than anything else. There is much to be said about their similiarties, but they are very different writers.

The same guy who told me to read the ‘Housebreaker of Shady Hill’, said the ‘The Swimmer’ might have been written right after it. Cheever desribes who can only be Johnny Hake, swimming from one pool to the next in the neighborhood Hake tried to ransake in ‘Housebreaker’. He swam quick laps in different pools, around his neighborhood, and then to see Cheever pull his point of view off the ground and describe the town from above, how the land stretched out and bent oddly like a dogs back legs. When he arrives at the Bunkers home and there is a party in progress around the pool he jumps in, and how the laughter is suspended in mid-air, the voices seem to rise off the water. He hears a ball game, people talking in the Bunkers kitchen, all of this cuts a tapestry of human’s passing through their houses and stomping in their own lives. These detail are great, right down the New York Times green plastic tube and the private property sign that marks the Levy’s driveway. He stands on the road, people might mistake him for a victim, but this man has no goal, just the need to move on, through the lives that surround him. He’s left his wife Lucinda alone at the start of this journey, and when he gets home the door is locked and the house dark. This is where the real trouble starts.

I thought ‘Goodbye, My Brother’ was over written, at first, it’s not, I’m just getting used to Cheevers tongue. The way of he describes a game of backgammon, or a brother who arrives by ferry and after a long introduction turns out to be a sour apple. The Pommeroy’s are a family steeped in generational wealth, (at least it seemed like it) and have a brother Lawerence, who has been given the nick name of Tifty, which I’ll let you discover. Tifty isn’t having this family reunion, and does everything to turn it to shit. Their mother, a drunk who can’t find the time to talk the nuts and bolts of life with anyone, and seems to be drunkenly living it up in some gilded past, who still occupies a home that is coming loose all around her…so Cheever moves her into the shadows.


I suppose there is a moment in a short story where a reader’s heart stops:

When I woke the next morning, of half woke, I could hear the sound of someone rolling the tennis court. It is a fainter and a deeper sound than the iron buoy bells of the point-an unrhythmic iron chiming-that belongs in my mind to the beginnings of a summer day, a good portent.”

A man laying in bed and listening to the day happen around him, before he’s had a chance to join in the fun. From then on Cheever had my full attention. It’s unfair to describe in detail how the brothers sort out their differences, but when John Updike quoted the last several lines of this story in his review of the Blake Bailey biography, Cheever, in this week’s New Yorker, I was thrilled to know that I’d read this story, and also found those last moments to be brilliant. In the story we see the wife and sister swimming, and it’s moments like this in life that you only half recognize when they are happening, but years later it can be the only thing that sticks in your mind.


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