The Swimmer by John Cheever

John Cheever and the Loneliness of Suburbia

John Cheever, America’s foremost documentarian on the lifeless routines and endless yard maintenance of suburbia, made his permanent move out of Manhattan and into a Dutch Colonial farmhouse in Ossining in 1961. In 1964, “The Swimmer” was published in The New Yorker, a short story which follows a socially well-regarded and youthful man as he traverses his quaint suburb by cutting through neighbors’ yards, crashing endless parties, and swimming through pools, growing more inebriated, unhappy, and lonely as the light of day dims and the seasons change inexplicably. Cheever’s personal life suffered similarly in his Ossining home after 1961: by all accounts, his alcoholism worsened, he began to struggle with his sexuality and his marriage, and his work suffered. The work itself seemed to focus on themes which floated past his “Swimmer” protagonist: the decline of youth, the smothering social structures, and the pressures of responsibilities to marriage and family, each issue magnified under the lens of the suburbs.

Cheever’s unforgiving accounts of life in mid-century East Coast suburbs suggest a hatred for suburban living, and it’s easy to believe that this is the whole story. However, the move to Ossining was not Cheever’s first round of suburban life: in 1951, the Cheevers moved to Westchester, where they rented a small cottage on the grounds of Scarborough-on-Hudson. Cheever served on the board of his childrens’ private school, walked his dog through the apple orchards, and volunteered for the local fire department. During this time, he wrote his classic short story “The Enormous Radio” and began working on his novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, which would become the most critically well-received book of his career.

In the arms of the lush countryside in the early fifties, from behind his desk in the rented cottage, Cheever did the work he had tried for so long to do. Several years before he set foot in the little house in Westchester, it had been occupied by another writer with a similar attraction to the invisible decline of happiness between city and suburb, who also wrote a critically successful work, one which would become his most recognizable: the story of the crumbling marriage of a reluctant suburban couple. Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, with its lonesome prose and tragic misfortunes, describes a world built overnight on the wrong side of a growing chasm, a world whose residents can only dream of fulfillment and never achieve it. April and Frank Wheeler, the novel’s protagonists, think back fondly to the early, carefree years of their relationship, before the burdens of children, daily commutes into and out of the city, and endless engagements with boring neighbors forced them to acknowledge the reality of their lives. April, forever peering out of the kitchen window, fails to find happiness in her involvement in community theater, and begins to critique her broadening midsection in the bedroom mirror. Frank, half-drunk by noon to chase away the previous night’s hangover, irritated by the monotony of his life, yearns for both freedom from responsibility and praise for meeting its minimum requirements. Over the course of several months, the two manipulate, sabotage, and finally destroy one another.

As cities boomed and became more expensive and less accommodating, especially for artists with growing bills, young Americans spread out into the surrounding areas where the money went farther and the air smelled cleaner. Yates and Cheever, controlled by the same circumstances, left New York City, but each turned his writer’s eye on a foundation of decay and unhappiness festering mere inches below the perfectly green grass and country club pools, where hands trembled for want of a drink by early afternoon and neighbors intruded, incessantly sharing bits of idle gossip and tips for growing house plants. Here, in the relative quiet outside of the city, one could more easily hear the creaks and groans of an unhappy marriage, the silence of the vacuum where ambitious dreams had been hastily replaced by new curtains and a slightly overpriced rug for the living room hall. Each wrote stories of heartbreaking loneliness, stories which burrow deep into the reader’s soul, as they are stories that seem so doomed to repeat themselves on some scale in similar suburbs across America, even as they are transformed into cautionary tales and shared over too many gin drinks and canapés, because the listeners get tired of listening.

This is the version of the suburbs presented by Cheever and Yates, this tragic loop, this place where we may all end up following the same pattern and ending in the same fate. However, this may not be a fair representation of the lives Yates and Cheever lived in these environments. Each wrote of suffering, but experienced something closer to happiness in this dreaded place, something closer to belonging. This is the unfortunate essence of it all: that the American suburb, due in some part to the works of Yates and Cheever, has long been cast as the place where youth and dreams go to die, when all along, it has been the place where creativity finds room to live; and while the suburbs have long played the role of the birthplace of American loneliness, perhaps Cheever and Yates have proven that loneliness is something carried within, brought from place to place, a passenger that is always with us, and is sometimes just easier to ignore in the hurry and noise of the city.

–Jona Whipple

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Skip to content