“Why, believing as he did, that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense, was he unable to turn back? Why was he determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger? At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious?”
–John Cheever, The Swimmer
Last week I wrote bemoaning the crash of a market which, it appears today, actually enjoys no bottom. If, like me, your income is tied directly to that pernicious beast then you can probably be forgiven the pendulum swings in your outlook, your lack of confidence in national institutions, and the bewildered appearance you make from time to time. The loss of valuations in this market, which may take decades to recover, come with serious consequences that will ripple out across the Lake of Big America for a long time to come.
Anyone who has spent any time in the market knows better than to react wildly to market swings, but then again no one alive has endured a market rodeo like this one. Nobody. Ever. Not even those salty veterans of ’08. This is, one thinks, almost exactly what it was like to ride Bodacious, who bucked off 127 of the 135 men who tried to cover him for 8 seconds.
Today Bodacious — who nearly killed both Tuff Hedeman and Scott Breding — is buried — standing up and with a bucking chute for his tombstone — on a ranch in Red River County, Texas, while many of the cowboys who gave him a try can barely walk. There is probably a lesson in that, too.
One week after my last post on this site conditions across the world are exponentially worse, as the true economic impact — to say nothing of the actual health toll — of this virus takes hold and so many of the things we’ve taken for granted are finally exposed for what they’ve always been: first world luxuries. Elsewhere, and through a dense fog, we are hearing shouts from business people desperately wanting someone, anyone, to throw them a ring buoy as they grow tired of treading in the choppy seas. I’ve even seen one nitwit suggest that these times are precisely the reason for small business owners to adopt “democratic socialism” — which is a great idea if they would like to jump through the Cuba wormhole and watch these same conditions, or even worse, continue ad infinitum.
At any rate, people are drowning, not waving, and taxes remain due on April 15.
None of us have lived through a true pandemic before, at least not on this scale, though back in 2009 Swine Flu tapped a lot of people hard. I caught it and can assure you it was the single most miserable thing I’ve ever experienced — even worse than serving search warrants in Lynwood, California.
Swine Flu was also a pandemic although the difference in global reaction — the Swine Flu hysteria was relatively quiet and short-lived — seems tied mostly to the rate of infection. I’m actually guessing at that claim because the people in charge of coordinating our national response, which includes a reliable output of public information, are competing against a globalized fake news and non-information syndicate that is simply awe-inspiring in its ability to churn out one bogus and unchecked claim after another.
And some of the worst offenders are the nabobs in media, because self-absorbed twits like Jim Acosta have managed to blanket their coverage of the virus with Trump derangement — which as an approach to journalism has grown as tiresome as a child whose only response is always a tantrum.
I’m not defending Trump, or this administration’s utterly anemic and uninspiring response to the virus, but even tonight’s offering by the supposed professionals at NBC news was a lesson in unabashed fear mongering and shameless political posturing. Shame on me for giving them a chance.
There is a lesson in all of this for governments seeking to debrief the takeaways and to manage some future crisis (this being the first actual crisis we’ve experienced in a long time, despite habitual overuse of that word) though if history is a guide it seems almost certain they won’t.
Two nights ago I watched some government boob try to answer a reasonable, simple, and direct question from a reporter: How many ventilators are available in the national stockpile? Apparently there actually is a national stockpile of ventilators — who knew — but the reply was a four minute Cajun Waltz of bright lights, bad makeup, and costumed bureaucratic twirling that never came anywhere close to answering the question — a performance far beneath the reasonable expectation of competence most of us mere citizens maintain.
It’s possible the government boob didn’t know the answer, and a simple “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you” would have been far better than the “I didn’t inhale” routine which is now so commonplace amongst government types nobody seems to notice. We either aren’t noticing how bad these people are at their jobs, or we are just too damn tired to hold anyone accountable anymore.
There is a third alternative here, probably even more concerning, which is that government figureheads, officials, and public servants have been so successful at insulating themselves from the consequences of their ineptitude they are virtually untouchable. And they know it.
One wonders how long incompetence can hide in the face of a dangerous pandemic.
All of which, now that March has delivered a solid 6″ of late-season snow to the Figure 8, has caused me to think about John Cheever’s masterpiece, The Swimmer. Published as a short story in 1964, and pared down from 150 pages of notes, The Swimmer was also made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster. I haven’t seen the movie, and probably won’t, but hey, here’s to Burt for landing the gig:
What makes The Swimmer a remarkable story is Cheever’s seemingly effortless swing from realism to a kind of sustained and troubling surrealism. He goes swimming beautifully in the subconscious, which is one reason it resonates so perfectly in today’s environment. In the Latin writers, like Garcia-Marquez, we might call Cheever’s accomplishment a touch of magical realism, but in this story the transition is so elegant, so subtle, and so nearly unnoticeable, the claim may overstate the case.
In the story, Neddy Merrill, who we don’t really know much about, is attending a backyard summer pool party when he decides to go home — by swimming across all the pools in his neighborhood and community. We don’t know why Neddy makes this decision, except that “The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty…” and so he “took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in…(Neddy) had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools.”
Neddy conceives of this swim, from one pool to the next, as a grand adventure down the “Lucinda River,” named after his wife. We know just enough about Neddy to determine that he is of some standing, well-off if not wealthy, and probably well-respected amongst his friends and family. We also know that he thinks highly of himself.
And so off he goes, from one backyard to the next, “The only maps and charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary but these were clear enough. First there were the Grahams, the Hammers, the Years, the Howlands, and the Crosscups. He would cross Ditmar Street to the Bunkers and come, after a short portage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the public pool in Lancaster. Then there were the Hallorans, the Sachses, the Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gilmartins, and the Clydes. The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence.”
But as he swims Neddy begins to grow tired. He wonders what he is doing and why. And the reception he receives from one yard to the next begins to change. Where once he was welcomed as a fun surprise, offered drinks and merriment, he begins to encounter different, puzzling reactions, some of them even rude and unpleasant. People talk behind his back as though he can’t hear them. His memory begins to fade, or to play tricks on him, as when he arrives in the Welchers’ yard and finds the pool empty and a FOR SALE sign tacked to a tree. He can’t remember when or why they moved.
Neddy moves on, crossing Route 424 where someone drives by and throws a beer can at him. He suffers the indignities of the chlorine reeking public pool, chased out by lifeguards blowing their whistles, and finally arrives at the compound of the Hallorans, who are “friends, an elderly couple of enormous wealth who seemed to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists. They were zealous reformers but they were not Communists, and yet when they were accused, as they sometimes were, of subversion, it seemed to gratify and excite them…The Hallorans, for reasons that had never been explained to him, did not wear bathing suits. No explanations were in order, really. Their nakedness was a detail in their uncompromising zeal for reform and he stepped politely out of his trunks before he went through the opening in the hedge.” And it is during this turn when Mrs. Halloran says to him “We’ve been terribly sorry to hear about all your misfortunes, Neddy.”
Neddy doesn’t know what she means, is confused by the claim, and continues on into a kind of autumn, which is where the magic of Cheever’s gift shines so brilliantly.
I won’t tell you the rest of the story, that’s for you to discover on your own, perhaps in quarantine as we collectively ride out this historic pestilence. But I was drawn back to Cheever’s masterpiece because something in it spoke to me when I first read it 30 years ago, something enduring, and it has been swimming in my own subconscious ever since. When I pulled it down again I was truly gratified that great fiction still holds up in the digital age, and was pleased to rediscover something vivid and interesting and extremely relevant to our present condition, something worth pondering as our world too seems to be changing all around us.
Because the world is changing, all of a sudden. It’s happening on the obvious and macro scale, but it seems to be happening also in the almost imperceptible zones, and as this day grows long and we swim on, we should perhaps wonder what shape these changes will eventually take, whether they mask the dangerous or the benign, and what surprises, pitfalls, and discoveries, presently concealed, they may ultimately reveal.