Of all the great white male midlife crisis epics, outside of TV's MAD MEN, who can beat the Burt Lancaster-starred adaptation of John Cheever's THE SWIMMER? What kind of 'meet' competition is there even to lap against? The recent Time Magazine cover lauding Jonathan Franzen as the literary canon's next great white hope sent a shock through the up and coming, young, brilliant and angry writing community at Pratt, as yet another middle-aged higher-educated white male of means got noticed writing about mid-life crises, college tenure boondogles, student affairs, car accidents that leave multi-generational ripples across sprawling summer cottage-owning families, replete with colorful characters and intellectual dialogue that makes everyone right down to the precocious daughter sound like the same pithy writer in love with his own voice. I'm guessin on all this, of course. Never read it, whatever it is he wrote. But the writing community at Pratt was nonplussed and that's enough for me. It's just, they said, Time Magazine grasping at the last straw in the arsenal for keeping awake their dwindling upper middle class white male readership (1). The lionizing search for the next great white hope, the Norman Mailer, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or John Cheever is not unlike the drowning grasp of the Swimmer himself! Wait, is that why I'm writing about it? Dude, I've made my peace with all the aforementioned tenets of WASPy life. Not that I'd ever be caught sober in a country club again, unless it was a wake, preferably mine own.
What's great about the 1968 adaptation of Cheever's THE SWIMMER, then, is how morbidly aware it is of the absurdity of such great white drunk male lionization. Where the lionizers massage and whisper ribald limericks, SWIMMER reaches into the floater's corpse for the nasty heart of white male 'pride of ownership' and finds the rotting crotch is all that's left. This particular crotch wrings especially true after first going through a few episodes of MAD MEN: Don Draper and the mourning of all the sexism, racism, high-functioning alcoholism, and other -isms that we're technically 'glad' are gone-- but man, we've been so busy this decade cleaning things up--Times Square, indoor smoking, workplace sexual harassment, public dancing (forbidden in NYC), outdoor smoking, racial profiling, equal rights--that we've forgotten what we've lost: Burt Lancaster, loping over hurtles to impress some Dolores Haze he met a mere two pools ago.
What happened? According to one disgruntled ex-friend: "You got tossed out of your golden playpen, that's what happened." As an entitled sexist white male myself, born in 1967, I grew up hearing racist, sexist and Polish jokes over parental cocktails, sitting on the couch beside them in awe, rushing to refill their drinks on request, blending the whiskey sour mix, smelling the sweet sugar sweat of hungover adults on Sunday mornings during the Dunkin Donuts run, copping sips at all hours. It's built into me, along with second-hand smoke. These things forged this site, and though I know it's all wrong I smoke nonetheless, and have an attitude of entitlement that is so seldom effective I consider my maintaining it a form of heroism. So when I see Burt in THE SWIMMER gradually sink into the deep end of illusion I weep, for me. The scene of his humiliation at the hands of the filthy ethnic grocers at the public pool especially wrankles. This is the ultimate in both comeuppance and validation of the class system the film is watching die. When the playing field is equal, the lowest common denominator always rules. Once you let the poor people in, your pool is officially 'public' i.e. packed and full of kiddie urine, a slum, in sum. On the other hand, maybe it's you who was the slum the whole time: "Ya wanna know what your kids thought of ya, Mr. Merrill?" the grocer says. "They thought you were a big joke!" Exemplifying the nouveu riche (the type who have to tell you how much everything cost), they're like devouring birds who wolf down our Burt like one of Sebastian's baby turtles.
Never go back to the house, Burt. Never get out of the goddamned pool. Just grab the first boat that comes along and call it flavor country. Absolutely goddamned right. Burt in THE SWIMMER, doesn't get in the boat, and it sails without him. The age of the great white sharky novel sinks down to the bottom as he pounds the iron doors of his golden playpen like its the locked steerage gate on the Titanic. His future is all used up. His key don't fit that lock on his door. Another mule has long ago kicked down his stall.
Released in 1968, THE SWIMMER is like the last helicopter out of hippie-swarmed Saigon. Burt swims backwards through the evacuees like a sperm whale who realizes before them all there's a prophylactic fishing net ahead. But there's no going back, oh paragon! Your day of slapping polyester asses and drinking the world into a hazy welcome mat is over. Swim to the sea, Cheever of Men, if it will have you. Just know there's lots of other sharks fighting over every last late-night co-ed summer breaker, and for far too long you've coasted in a sea of spoonfed chum. Are your teeth sharp? Is your skin hard? Is your mouth a little weak? Are you smart? Or would you rather be a duck? Quack for us, Mr. Draper, quack a little dream... of Time.
1. My dad's subscribed to TIME all my life, and I grew up reading Richard Corliss and carbonizing my growth hormones via its pictures of Cheryl Tiegs and Charlie's Angels. I hate it but it's a part of me, that's a fact.