In the opening paragraph of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” the readers find themselves at a neighborhood party at the home of the Westerhazys on a Sunday afternoon, where everyone complains of having drank too much the night before: “You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium … ‘I drank too much,’ said Donald Westerhazy. ‘We all drank too much,’ said Lucinda Merrill.”
Conspicuous and excessive consumption of alcohol is typical of Cheever’s works. So-much-so that it is not surprising to learn Cheever himself struggled with alcoholism throughout his life. What is more, alcoholism ties in with another prominent theme of the work: criticisms of affluent American life in the mid-twentieth century. Through mention of places like tennis courts and golf courses, we know that the characters of “The Swimmer” occupy a world filled with the trappings of what was and is still considered the American Dream: wealth, success, and enough confidence in their social standing so as to be able to spend whole nights drinking without fear of consequences that could befall someone of a lower rank. Cheever in no way celebrates this aspect of his characters’ lives, nor does he actively indict them. Rather, he presents this information objectively. When Donald Westerhazy and Lucinda Merrill say they drank too much last night, they do so in a neutral way of speaking; no one displays any guilt at their drunkenness, but rather acknowledges it as a component of their reality. One may interpret the characters’ drinking and their accompanying casual attitude as a coping mechanism for the tedium of suburban life. Though the existence lead by Cheever’s characters is comfortable, it is also substantiated through adherence to unspoken codes of conduct within their community: they try to appear faithful by attending church; their tennis matches and golf games are just as much about maintaining their shallow friendships as recreation, if not more. All of it is geared towards cultivating an image of contrived normalcy. They are defeated, the happiness they thought would be inherent to their material wealth is noticeably absent from their lives. Thus, alcohol becomes less of a social lubricant and more of a self-prescribed medication against the crushing emptiness of the environment in which the characters are living.
Cheever seems to be an author concerned with happiness, more specifically, the importance of happiness in American culture. “The Swimmer” like most of his stories is set during a time in this nation’s history when it experienced an unprecedented level of prosperity and opulence; the generation of Americans that returned home victoriously from World War II learned that the luxuries which had been out of reach to previous generations were now their’s for the taking. A decade later, however, many of these young Americans grew up to learn that material wealth is not a guarantee of fulfillment, and found themselves questioning the truth of what American culture had conditioned them to believe. This is what Cheever attempted to capture with his fiction, the shadow side of the American dream, the rot beneath the glittering facade domestic tranquility.