Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

John Cheever's Shady Hill, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Suburbs

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

John Cheever's Shady Hill, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Suburbs

Article excerpt

There's been too much criticism of the middle-class way of life. Life can be as good and rich there as anyplace else. I am not out to be a social critic, however, nor a defender of suburbia. It goes without saying that the people in my stories and the things that happen to them could take place anywhere.

--John Cheerer, Saturday Review (1958)

First published in the July 18, 1964, issue of The New Yorker, "The Swimmer" remains John Cheever's most distinctive short story. Neddy Merrill's famous journey across the swimming pools of affluent suburban homes wends through Sunday afternoon parties where caterers serve the gin ice-cold and everyone confesses they "drank too much" last night. (1) Merrill embarks on his cross-country swim from the Westerhazy's pool. Acoustically, the name Westerhazy tunes the reader's ear for a bit of wordplay, the distinctive surname enfolding both Westchester and the haziness of inebriation and memory. As Merrill surveys the suburb "with a cartographer's eye" (Stories, 603), the narrator notes, "The only maps and charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary but these were clear enough" (Stories, 604). Cheever introduces a dialectic relationship between physical spaces and their representations, and this interplay between the physical and the cartographic, the real and the imagined, ripples through the narrative. As the reader discovers early on, Merrill reads spaces and contexts rather poorly. He acknowledges the falling leaves, the smell of wood smoke in the air, and the early darkness, yet he clings to the idea that it is midsummer. He misinterprets comments about his financial and familial misfortunes, oscillating between denial and repression. The home he returns to in Bullet Park--dark, abandoned, and in disrepair--promises, perhaps, to break the spell: "He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty" (Stories, 612). The structure's physicality disrupts Merrill's imagined cartography. Lashing out against the house, Merrill confronts the divide between conceptual and physical spaces as a voyeur at his own window.

"The Swimmer" typifies the ambiguous position Cheever occupied in relation to the suburbs and the "middle-class way of life" and offers a useful entree into his "suburban oeuvre." As suggested in the 1958 interview in the Saturday Review marking the publication of The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories, Cheever positioned himself somewhere between criticism and defense of suburbia. (2) The perfect embodiment of this middle position is the image of Merrill peering in his window, essentially trespassing on his own property. Yet this image and, indeed, Merrill's entire journey also belie the notion that what occurs in a Cheever story could "take place anywhere." While archetypal literary themes may be endlessly portable, the private spaces of suburbia create an equivocal geography peculiar to the human trespasses and the tenuous nature of middle-class life in Cheever's suburban stories.

In "The Swimmer," this relationship between trespass and equivocal spaces becomes apparent at the crucial mid-point of the story when Merrill's journey is interrupted by a roadway and a public swimming pool. Merrill's cross-country swim makes visible the premium placed on privacy in the physical and social spaces of suburbia, but most of the scholarly commentary on this story tends to downplay the suburban setting in favor of the narrative's allusive and symbolic nature. Scholars have provocatively interpreted the transitional uses of color as an indicator to Merrill's decline; water imagery and the return to the womb; biblical allusions to the Fall of Adam; classical allusions to Odysseus, Narcissus, and the Grail legend; literary parallels with Dante's Inferno, Shakespeare's King Lear, and Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle"; and historical references to Ponce de Leon's failed quest to discover the fountain of youth. …

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