Alan Catlin

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The Swimmer           

We are now living in a time that is not measured by metrics; that is time easily categorized and defined by units like days, months and years. These new metrics are news cycles, social media hot flashes, endless reality shows that collide head on with our preferred mediums (television, smart phones, twitter verses et alia) and they want us to know.  A little over a year ago feels like a millennium now: impeachment trails, attempted coups, national elections, all blurred by a fog of information, real, imagined and totally made-up.  Keeping track of the actual events feels like a Herculean task; the eighth task of a super hero struggling to appease fickle gods and achieve a kind of freedom to do what super heroes do.

Super heroes are all comic book images now: fantastical, unreal, impossible godlike, pseudo people who the impressionable, no matter how old they may be, would like to be when they grew up. Assuming they ever grew up. Assuming that this was even possible.  Grab your surf board and coast through outer space with the Silver Surfer. (Man, I wish I still had my first run comics, the ones I used in my demonstration speech in college, “The Art Form of Comic Books”!) Run like Flash.  Be as sexy as Cat Woman tweaking Batman or as supercool and as omnipotent as Black Panther, Wonder Woman.  Whatever.

Can we even tell what’s real and what isn’t, any longer?

It’s all just a Show. We’ve had a bad actor as president who committed high crimes and misdemeanors (Contragate anyone?) while in office, as he slowly slipped into dementia and began confusing his grade B movies with reality. It was the kind of presidency you might expect from a guy whose first request as president was to see the War Room expecting to see something like what was used in movies like Dr. Strangelove or Fail Safe.  And was clearly ultra-disappointed there wasn’t one what he had imagined.

One could pose a question: which one of those movies, Fail Safe or Dr. Strangelove was a satire? The answer might be both. Or neither. As the very real possibility of a world ending nuclear holocaust seems more and more real every day. And that presidency was as unreal as any of the dozens of Grade B movies he acted in (Bonzo for Secretary of State anyone?)

And then there was Seven Days in May. Now that’s a scary movie to watch these days. Horror movie or documentary?  Remember when Burt Lancaster spit in Kirk Douglas’s character’s face for exposing his plot to overthrow the government. And called him Judas? That could never happen, right?

There has always been a high degree of role playing in the office of the presidency and Reagan took that to a new level.  He was avuncular in a Master of the Universe kind of way so that when he cast bread crumbs on the waters of capitalistic democracy for the poor and the unfortunate, it was cool. Those crumbs felt like a behest from the tsar or an El Presidente. At the very least, there was a sense he had a background in politics, an understanding how government worked as a Governor of California. That even if you disagreed with him, he had values, actual principles. Remember those?
And then there was the Age we barely escaped from in one piece, though the final results haven’t truly been tabulated yet. And won’t be until the ultimate reality star president either dies or is disqualified from holding office again, whichever happens first. I’m taking bets which one it is.

Here was a man who actually played a president on TV. Whatever else you can say about The Orange One, he is a master technician of controlling the narrative. Every day of his presidency was part of an ongoing daytime reality show that had all the elements of a soap opera with access to the nuclear codes.  Never has one man done so much to obfuscate, to mismanage, and to distort a narrative for personal gain. Unfortunately, the pundit who said, “Everything Trump touches dies” was correct.

Trump was Everyman’s worst nightmare, a duly elected madman. Did I say this before? With access to the codes.  Of course, I did. And you could imagine him passing the nuclear football down field (China anyone?) and all the television screens going black, smart phones unable to receive or transmit, Armageddon. And it wouldn’t be his fault. It wouldn’t be anyone’s fault, really, because there wouldn’t be enough people left to care. That is if there were anyone left at all to fulfill Einstein’s prophecy that World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones.

We may not be there yet but we are inching closer. Somewhere in the space time continuum of last year, I debated writing an essay on John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”. I was sick of writing about the Evil One, of politics in general, and wanted to move one. Judging by the results of the election, the real results, (there is that word again, real) I was not the only one. I made notes and ran off some articles and began drafting the piece in my head, as I like to do, and then Jan. 6 happened. 

In 2016 I had predicted his reign of terror as president was going to be bad, worse than we could ever imagine, but the time when he was a lame duck president, that was going to be terrible. Whether that was in 2020 (hopefully as one term president) or 2024, it would be the most dangerous time of our lives. The reason was simple: a man like him never wants to give up his toys. (And he doesn’t play by the rules and conventions of the presidency). He wants all the toys, all the time and the presidency was the biggest toy of all.  And he wanted people to love him for having them. Or pretend to, it was all the same to him.

All through the dark ages, four years can be an age as we all learned, the biggest question was: what would he do if there was an international crisis? This is a man incapable of dealing, of making tactical decisions that don’t personally affect him directly. How would he handle a Big Question? Of course, I was thinking of a new war that could potentially involve everyone.

What we got instead was a plague and it became obvious, right away, he was going to fuck it up. Fuck up like no one ever fucked up anything so important before. You can’t politicize a disease, I thought, you can’t fantasize or will it away, you basically, have to confront it head on. I confess, I underestimated him. Of course, you could. And hundreds of thousands of people would die.

His philosophy (such as it was) was: when in doubt lead from behind, delegate and blame everyone else for your failures. And don’t forget to invent bogus cures and convince hundreds of thousands of people not to use the best available methods of containment and treatment. Only a genius of epic proportions could accomplish this. An unstable genius of the highest order. Who would have thought you would have to issue a public service announcement to warn people not to drink bleach?

Returning to “The Swimmer”, during a potentially world war, in the midst of an ongoing human rights disaster of historical scope, I feel as if the 60’s, the pre-British Invasion, pre-free love 60’s, was essentially an extension of the 50’s. It was an alien culture filled with alien people, who might be our parents if we grew up in Westchester County, or a county like it. (Speaking metaphorically, of course, as I came of age in the 60’s but now feel like a creature of the recent dark ages.) Appropriately, I seem to have lost my notes, but I still have the story to reread and the movie to rewatch. After doing both, the conclusion I reached was: if four years can be an age, a short story of ten pages can be an epic and that’s what “The Swimmer” is.

Thinking of aliens now, a 50’s classic B movie comes to mind, The Body Snatchers. A cheap black and white sci fi flick where bad guys from outer space arrive on planet earth, in California, (where else?) looking for creatures to inhabit. They place vegetable pods near their victims (that look like giant ears of corn) and when you fall asleep, they recreate your body and replace your mind with theirs.  One of the greatest ironies, of our totally unironic age is, the actor who escapes the invasion, to warn the others, the who is running out into a highway to spread the warning, “They are here!”, is named Kevin McCarthy. (Of course, no on listens and we can see by the truck loads of pods being transported into our neighborhoods, it is already too late), Kevin McCarthy, the guy with the same name as the actor, the would-be Speaker of the House, and the man would do absolutely anything to hold that office. Even making pacts with the devil himself.

There are no rules that say the devil can’t have orange skin and even if there was, it wouldn’t really matter: once you’ve signed the pact there is no looking back.

“The Swimmer” is a curious tale very much of its time: everyone in this posh upper-class area (filmed in Connecticut suburb that might be next door to Stepford) is complaining of having drunk too much last night.  Apparently, it is Sunday morning and all anyone wants to do is read the Times (or The Herald) and drink Bloody Marys while wondering what happened in that big black hole that was last night.  All except for Neddy, played by Burt Lancaster, looking impossibly fit and raring to go. His character, Neddy, is roughly forty plus years old and Burt, at the time is 55.  We should all look this good, even hungover.

Neddy’s enthusiasm for exercise seems misplaced and totally alien to this world. Once Neddy picks up on information that a neighbor has installed a pool, he quickly calculates that there is now a path, a “river”, he names for his wife, Lucinda, that he can swim back to his home using backyard pools. His home is eight miles away! His friends, for we suppose these people poolside are his friends, are incredulous, not so much by the daft idea, which is in itself ridiculous, but by his goal, home. Their looks tell us something, they know what Neddy seems to have forgotten, erased from his mind, that in a “lost” three years of Neddy’s memory, his world has been completely upended.

The first time watching the movie, you could be excused for not realizing the extent and meaning of this incredulous looks. The quest, the swimming, is a Pyrrhic quest, but the incredulity is much deeper than that: these people know why the quest is doomed and he does not. Neddy is Odysseus in a fugue state. Undaunted, Neddy dives headlong into the pool and begins swimming.

As he travels from backyard to backyard, details of his personality, his life begin to clarify.  Neddy is charming: both a man’s man and a back door man for the wives. He adapts his charm to the social groups he encounters, answers generalities about his family, two daughters and Lucinda, with more genial, non-specific generalities, that reflect his romanticized version of his family situation. As he progresses through the various adventures in back door gardens, pool parties, and outright hostile confrontations, including one with an outraged wife of a former friend who died, and a former mistress, even Neddy begins to realize his banalities are lies.

Servants are downright rude to him at one party. You know you are in the shits when the banquet bartender and the chauffer treat you with distaste and outright hostility.  We see Neddy as a casual, typical racist of his time, a womanizer (there is delicious cameo with Joan Rivers at a party he is ejected from as a gate crasher) and borderline alcoholic. Neddy is a man who has used up his social credit with his peers, a man without a job, a family, a home to go to, but he has a way to go on his self-defeating journey. And a whole lot more disillusionment before he gets to the end of his swim.

The low point on his journey to nowhere, comes as he tries to cross a turnpike. People drive by a shout at him, throw cans and bottles at him, shout insults. Eventually, still in bare feet and bathing suit, he manages to cross the concrete river, a true Herculean task at that time of day. He reaches a municipal pool where he wants to clean his feet before swimming there. There is a modest fee for entrance that he does not have. Seeing some tradesmen and their family, who once did work for him back in the day. Rather than bail him out of this embarrassing predicament, they ridicule him. Apparently, he has stiffed them for work done and disdained them, sort of the way president 45 treats his tradesman and people who worked for him: you can do the work but don’t expect to get paid.  Eventually they practically make him beg for the money.  The journey is almost over but more trials lie ahead.

The summer weather is turning colder and storm clouds are on the horizon.  Neddy is no longer the virile warrior, defeating all the enemies along the way, like Odysseus or Hercules, conquering the trials, the physical ordeals, ready to arrive home to faithful Penelope, as the conquering hero. He finally reaches his deserted home as the storm breaks and he is literally left in the cold shivering, totally defeated. There is no faithful old hound to expire once he recognizes his long-lost master. No faithful wife to welcome him to her bed (once he has slain a boat load of suitors).

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of “The Swimmer” is that in the course of an hour and thirty minutes movie (ten pages Cheever story) is that he and Eleanor Perry (who wrote the screenplay) have created this epic journey.  The world Neddy travels is fraught, a kind of sunny netherworld turning darker the further along the imaginary river he goes.  He meets all and gradually he is worn down and defeated, a kind of modern-day antihero. He does not aspire to nor does he achieve a classic hero status, so by definition, his is not a tragic story. It is merely a sad one.

One important question is never directly addressed: just where has Neddy been the last three years of his memory gaps.  How has he managed to suppress his downfall, so apparent to   everyone he knows, and everyone he meets?  Cheever suggests a lifestyle that is greatly diminished. One expects the only reason he is poolside, when the story begins, is out of respect and fondness for Lucinda.  In the movie he is just there, somewhere in the middle of an ongoing story for which no explanation is provided.  It seems odd that such a disgraced person could be accepted into this social milieu. He is a kind of alien, a man who fell to earth.

Neddy, the alien inhabits the body of his former self, but not the complete person. His actions and interactions are reflexive and practiced. He is a known quantity but is unknowable to himself.  There is a backstory he must discover the hard way and when he does there is no future for him.  What could be more modern, more sixties existential than that? 

And what of his contemporaries, these vacuous, self-indulgent, materialistic, rich folks? What does their future look like? They are already dinosaurs in a dying age, Desperate Characters on Revolutionary Road becoming what? Disco dancers? Ice stormers at a key party?

Is it possible to imagine Neddy dressed in loud polyester party clothes doing a Travolta under a spinning globe to Bee Gee tunes?  I can’t. Of course, it is equally difficult to imagine that the free love, return to nature, folk singing, then acid rocking music, the Age of Aquarius becoming one of protest, morphing completely into Saturday Night Fever in less than a generation. How long would it take before someone who co-opt Joplin’s, “Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz….” into a car ad. Not long. Led Zeppelin Cadillac ad?  The mind reels.

I can, however, see Neddy at a key party with a second wife, who has the money, while he works at a second tier, created-just-for-him management position in his father-in-law’s company.  In fact, the key party scene would probably have been his idea and it wouldn’t end well just the way the novel and the subsequent movie, The Ice Storm doesn’t. 

I was working in a supper club at the tail end of the 70’s. I still have flashbacks whenever I hear a loop tape of songs from that era and they are closer to bad acid flashbacks than nostalgia.  There was a group of seven couples who used to come in every Saturday day night at the same time after dinner somewhere else. Once I established, I wasn’t as big an asshole as they originally thought, we had a cordial, even friendly relationship. They invited us, my wife and I, to their Sunday poolside parties (We didn’t go. A missed field research opportunity that’s for sure, like turning down state troopers first-hand accounts of the Attica prison riot. But this is part of a completely different other group of stories.) I was intrigued by these people as, of these seven couples, I could only determine who two of the married ones were with their respective spouses. The guy who ran the tab and his wife, who I got along best with, and his right-hand man and his wife. The other five couples were with rotating partners. It took me almost three months to figure out who was actually married to whom.

I wasn’t sure if they were true key partiers, that is chosen at random, or if there was a Rota as in: A was with B this week than A was with C, the next week and so forth.  By the second full rotation and into the third I had it figured out.  Not that it mattered, but all information is good information, especially as one of those guys was a very well-placed police detective.  The whole scene was like a Cheever novel gone bad.  Which is why another author, Rick Moody, had to write The Ice Storm. I expect the couples who lived long enough to retire bought home at Latitude Margaritaville in Daytona.

We were on the verge of a new reactionary age then. The pendulum was swinging far left and now it was swinging right. The new age would be material, Reagan Robber Barons with Carte Blanche to formally screw the poor and give to the rich, the reverse Robin Hood that typifies recent republican politics.  We preach morality and we are against drugs while we wage an illegal war in Latin America exchanging drugs for weapons.  And it took a man who would become a legendary legal hypocrite, Bill Barr, to get the worst of the offenders off. He was just warming up for his later role as the Machiavellian partner in crime with the Don. 

People were free basing coke, and crack would become the drug of choice during the War on Drugs. It was to be an age of making bad things (drugs) widely available as prescription drugs. A few immensely wealthy people would become ungodly rich and it would be obvious to all concerned that millions spent on drug lobbying was money well spent. And nothing would be done about it until there was an actual epidemic of drug abuse.  To rewrite a Dylan verse, “I started out on valium and soon took the harder stuff.” Hello Oxycontin! 

Neddy would be dead of a heart attack by then. He wasn’t the drug taking type, or didn’t see himself as one, until he was.  As the body aged and the mental acuity failed, he would need some mother’s little helpers to keep up the pace and keep the ball rolling. He would be blasted all the time and wonder why he was becoming an outcast a second time. His wife would throw him out. Again. His second batch of children would shun him. He’d become the guy at the bar no one wants to talk to because he is a wide-open mouth, crazy political Neanderthal, whose politics were set in stone during the Eisenhower administration and he thought Ike was a commie. The best book ever written, he would say, was None Dare Call It Treason

Neddy would be at the bar every day until he had his own reserved seat and would become a topic of conversation on par with the weather. Weather’s nice today. What kind of shit was Neddy spewing today?  That kind of regular. The kind I knew intimately. And then he would just drop dead and it would almost be sad.

Yeats’ gyre would be spinning. We would all be swimmers against a historical idea that threatens to drown us. Kids of parents from the hippie generation wanted to be doctors so they could make the big bucks. Or else they would be certified public accountants. And their kids would he hedge funder or day traders or both. And their kids would be vanguards of a new reactionary movement determined to ignore anything that happened since 1952.  They may succeed in the short run, make lives miserable for everyone but the diehard wingnuts and then the pendulum, would begins wing in the other, hopefully more rational direction.

In the meantime, we would see the possible end of our republic, due to our short-sighted politics of self-interest and material gain. We would only see issues as black and white, never extrapolating a consequence from an action beyond, “How much is it worth to me?” The oceans would be polluted, the air unbreathable, our forests and neighborhoods on fire (as in Paradise burned down completely to the ground), our food inedible, see the “underclass” in riot mode, and we could have done something about all of it but we didn’t.  The pod people will have won, the aliens will be us, and they will be running all The Fortune 500 Companies. (until they aren’t)  If there is another generation to look back all I can think of them saying is, “What the hell was wrong with these people?” The answer would be obvious but it will be too late to change the narrative.