A note in "The Journals of John Cheever" -- sections of which preface each chapter in Matt Bondurant's "The Night Swimmer" -- ponders whether "to give pain some nobility." To handle tragedy, Cheever says, one needs "moral authority"; otherwise, are we not simply at the mercy of those fickle fingers? Bondurant's mesmerizing third novel, set on the isolated coast of southern Ireland, uses a distinctive narrator, Elly Bulkington, to explore Cheever's fatalistic notion, and in doing so Bondurant has constructed a melancholy ode to Ireland itself.
The novel opens with a contest involving a dart, a pint and a poem, the essential randomness of which Elly does not let go unnoticed. When it's over, she and her husband, Fred, have won ownership of the Nightjar pub in Baltimore, Ireland, a rural village edged with steep cliffs and "the thrashing ocean." This win plunges Elly and Fred into treacherous physical and psychological terrain.
They met in graduate school, where Fred seemed "like a distillation of the working-class hero and the intellectual dreamer." But as a couple, they've been pining for a life represented by a "mostly imagined past," a world where people drink martinis and smoke pot and feel "an affinity for the couples who populate" Cheever's short stories. Running this Irish pub becomes more than a change for Fred and Elly, it becomes a move of mythical proportions.
This is Elly's tale, narrated in a flashback to their time in Ireland. Fred quickly recedes in the story, left behind to drink at the pub while Elly swims in the dangerously deep waters between Cape Clear Island and Fastnet Rock. The descriptions of the sea and of Elly's physical sensations as she navigates it are stunning, Bondurant's words capturing "the roar and the slush of the water," the "plunk and drum of bubbles," and "the pleasant whir" of Elly's mind. She's a machine "of muscle, sinew, tendon, organs" because of a rare condition called "congenital hypodermic strata," which gives her an extra layer of subcutaneous fat, making her extra buoyant.
The more Elly swims, the more she loses sight of what have been her touchstones. The shore recedes, her reality shifts, her marriage hits the rocks. When Elly first swims this perilous strait, she feels weightless, as if she's "in orbit around the earth." By the end, Elly "feels heavy on the earth," no longer "close to anything."
To read swimming as this novel's primary metaphor is to see only its surface. The unforgiving landscape, the fact that "few places in the world have as many shipwrecks," or that these islands are a "paradise for bird watchers" (keen observers of the natural world) all deepen Elly's tragic tale, one she narrates with "the shrill cry of heartbreak" and a profound poetic lyricism.
Carole Barrowman teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee and blogs at www.carolebarrowman.com.