“The Swimmer” opens on a humorous note: it “was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night,'” the narrator says. It is a beautiful summer day, and a large white cloud “like a city seen from a distance” is on the horizon. Neddy Merrill, a slender and young-looking man, sits beside the pool with a glass of gin. He decides that he could “reach his home… eight miles to the south .. . by water.” He can swim home via the pools of the inhabitants of the suburbs where he lives. He names the string of pools the “Lucinda River” after his wife Lucinda.
This is not such a strange idea for him to have, the narrator reveals, because “he was … determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure.” Beginning at the Westerhazys’ pool, he embarks upon his journey. The next pool he reaches is the Grahams’, where Mrs. Graham gives him a drink. He remains there until some friends of the Grahams arrive from Connecticut, at which time he slips away. Arriving at the Hammer house, he swims through their pool undisturbed, as he does at the Lears’. The Howlands and Crosscups are away, and he swims their pools easily.
At the Bunkers’ house, he runs into his first obstacle: a party with a caterer and “caterer’s men in white coats.” Detained there for time enough to have a drink, he then proceeds to the Tomlinsons’ and crosses their pool. The next house, belonging to the Levys, has been the scene of another party— though no one is currently around—and Neddy pours himself another drink after crossing their pool. He feels “tired, clean, and pleased.”
As he sits at the Levys’ house, a storm breaks. He sits in their gazebo and waits it out. After the storm, he crosses the Lindleys’ riding ring to the Welcher house and the next pool. The pool is empty, however, and “this breach in the chain of water disappointed him absurdly.” The Welchers seem to have gone away; indeed there is a FOR SALE sign on a tree out front. His bad luck continues when he crosses Route 424, cold and wet, and the cars will not stop to let him by. After he finally gets across, he arrives at Lancaster’s Recreation Center, where he must cross the crowded pool. The water there is much less pleasant than in his friends’ pools, and he has to wash his feet “in a bitter and cloudy solution.” When it is discovered that Neddy does not have proper identification, the lifeguards throw him out of the pool.
Ducking through the fence, he escapes to the Halloran estate. He tells the Hallorans about his quest. Mrs. Halloran responds: “We’ve been terribly sorry about all your misfortunes.” Neddy asks what she means and she continues: “we heard that you’d sold the house and that your poor children. …” Neddy insists that everything is fine and continues on. At the Hallorans’ daughter’s house he is unable to get a drink because they have given up alcohol. Moving on, he arrives at the Biswangers’. They are having a party but treat him as a gate crasher because he has snubbed them in the past. He has a drink and leaves. The next house belongs to “his old mistress, Shirley Adams.” She refuses to lend him any money, although he does not ask, and he swims her pool and leaves.
On the last leg of his journey, Neddy begins to feel intensely cold and tired. He cries because he cannot understand why the people on the last half of his journey have been so rude to him. He swims the last two pools and finally arrives home exhausted. However, his house is dark and locked and he does not have the key. His wife, whom he was expecting to be home, is not there, and the story ends with Neddy pounding on the door of his own house and shouting, only to find that the place is empty.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, John Cheever, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.