“Will you ever grow up?”
The boozy, intergenerational American horror story of pool parties and suburbia
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Dustin Hoffman crushing a pool beer in The Graduate (1967.) Thanks Andy for the suggestion. Source
Summer solstice be damned: #MDW2020 is coming to a close, and as far as I’m concerned, summer is kicking off in earnest. So in this edition of Fingers, we’re going to talk about swimming pools.
Also: drinking in swimming pools, the coronavirus pandemic, John Cheever, and the false promise of both suburbia and accelerationism, and uh… some other shit, too!
If you own a pool I hope this newsletter doesn’t make you too mad at me. Additionally, you’re clearly doing very well for yourself, so congratulations, please send me $15 right now. Thanks.
Anyway let’s dive in (pool joke!)
Backyard, in-ground swimming pools are a hallmark of the Baby Boomer generation’s love affair with the sprawling, privatized, and largely white vision of American suburbia. I’m sure they have a really interesting history predating their role as a wealth-signifier for the upper-middle class in the mid-20th century United States—maybe the Turkish baths or something?—but we simply haven’t the time to go there. Because we’re going here:
This article, written by the New York Times’ Gina Bellafante (all hail a fellow -fante surname!), examines a shocking new trend. Just kidding, it isn’t shocking at all: due to the coronavirus pandemic, rich people are scrambling to buy in-ground pools as fast as they can to avoid having to stroke breast amongst the hoi polloi during the summer of our discontent.
Poors be swimmin’
Here is a slapper-doodle-doo of a sentence from the story that pissed a lot of people off on Twitter (emphasis mine):
If you had previously regarded the notion of having your own place to swim as ostentatious, inefficient, inimical to all your communitarian values, you might now see it differently — as a reliable means of circumventing contact with the dangerous vector class.
“The dangerous vector class,” of course, is another way of saying “you and me and all the other pool-less wretches.” It’s a fucked-up way to refer to people with less money than you, especially given that there’s some reason to believe that wealth is, itself, a more defining vector of coronavirus transmission than, you know, being poor, or black- or brown-skinned, or even having COVID-19. (Unfortunately, those latter three factors seem to go hand-in-hand these days, though.)
The line caused quite a stir, with some media heads claimed Bellafante, as one of the Gray Lady’s more class-sensitive columnists, was obviously using this term sardonically, and others saying she was wrong to run the phrase, wryly or not. You draw your own conclusions on your own time, because that’s not what we’re here to talk about.
That ‘Swimmer’ shimmer
In the story, amidst all the blood-boiling detail of American plague baroque, Bellafante ever-so-briefly namechecked a certain departed man of letters:
Traveling farther down the coast to Westport, Conn. — Cheever country — the pool obsession is no less frenetic.
If you, like me, are the type of person who likes to waste a lot of money and time to make themselves feel bad, maybe you went to college for an English degree. Perhaps you were really like me, and were born in the cradle of privilege that is Fairfield County, Connecticut. I guess it’s possible that you are nearly exactly like me, and therefore noted with delight the reference to a one John William Cheever.
A still from the movie adaptation of The Swimmer (1968) starring Burt Reynolds. Source
In 1964, the late American author, known as the “Chekhov of the suburbs,” wrote “The Swimmer,” which is one of my favorite short stories of all time. (My generous family bought me a very-expensive diploma so that I could hold close my opinions about short stories, you see.)
The story’s plot, which I will not rehash in detail here, centers around a WASP-y dude pool-hopping his way across some verdant post-war suburbia, drinking and splashing and flailing his way from glory to despair. It is dreamy and weird and deeply sad, as my Twitter pal Dan can attest:
I just reread the story to *extremely Johnny Cash voice* see if I still feel. Reader, I fuckin’ do. There’s a lot about drinking—the characters are constantly whamming gin, whiskey, wine and the like—but the motif I remembered vividly from previous readings was the entitlement of isolation.
The characters seemed ensconced in a parallel universe, a lush paradise walled off by wealth and status that life’s common cruelties could not breach. (YES, HELLO, DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR?)
Of course, there is no such place, and the seemingly privileged protagonist learns this in due time. Here’s a swell exchange from the story between a monied housewife and our not-yet-destitute, master-of-the-universe main character (the [brackets] are mine):
[Him:] “I’m swimming across the county.”
[Her:] “Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?”
Will you ever grow up, you drunken louse, bathed in privilege unchecked and waters shimmering aquamarine? It’s a question that bears unexpected relevance to our current moment, which, wow, is so bad!
Pandemic pool parties
Over over the weekend you may have seen some viral videos of massive pool parties in red states that have reopened their economies despite the fact that the coronavirus has claimed ~100,000 American lives.
I saw a pair of entries to this emerging genre over the weekend that were so troubling as to force me off Twitter for a few blessed hours: one in Houston, Texas, and another at Lake of The Ozarks in Missouri, a place that most of us only know as the setting for the Jason Bateman/Laura Linney drug drama, but which nevertheless apparently exists.
This here is what my online friend Miles Klee, one of the best bloggers/opinion writers working today, refers to as America’s collective “fuck it mode.”
We are a people who face danger with reckless abandon, just drunk enough to think we’re invincible. When the going gets tough, we say, “Fuck it.”
But while there are evidently a solid chunk of Americans out there ready to die for their bizarre, selective, and utterly non-urgent definitions of “freedom,” it’s not so clear why “fuck it,” to them, means drinking rapidly warming light beers in a massive swimming pool alive with the writhing, tattooed flesh of drunk strangers.
Virus aside, pool bars are uniquely heinous places to drink. You are sloshing around in a veritable petri dish of urine, hair, and spilled mixed drinks, which are of course far more expensive than they ought to be, and the music is brain-shakingly loud. Sunscreen and vape clouds drift over the water’s surface, while beneath it… ugh, don’t even think about what’s going on beneath the surface, actually. Not if you want to feel good about pouring more tepid fluids into your maw.
Somehow, Americans’ corruptive notions about drinking, youth, and virility have shifted from drinking one’s self away in leafy suburban despond Cheever-style, to wallowing waist-deep in a bowl of chlorine solution under sonic torture while sucking back your poison of choice at a pornographic premium. Both are pretty bad! But answering how we got from one to the other will be the subject of another essay on another day, because this thing is running long already. Let’s take it home, compadres!
“The dangerous vector class”
Returning to Bellafante’s quip: whether they’re of the same economic class or not, I think there is a dangerous vector cohort in this country. But they’re not the folks she was nodding at. They’re the people who have decided the virus is not enough of a threat to stop them from a lifestyle of drunken inconsequence. Apparently, to find them this summer, you won’t have to look much further than your local cabana-and-bottle-service nightmare pond.
The pool party videos made me pretty mad/baffled about people who think staggering drunkenly around a bad pool party is more important than keeping others (and their roommates, families, selves…) alive. But smugly wishing ill upon those people (an accelerationist bent that’s popular in certain corners of the internet) is sort of a waste of energy at this point.
The class dynamic laid bare in the NYT story is the story that actually matters in this Memorial Day Weekend’s swimming-pool discourse. The message is clear, and non-fiction: wealth changes how some Americans experience the world’s cruelties—including but not at all limited to the coronavirus pandemic—at the indirect expense of the rest of us.
Will the suburbia’s promise of insularity (or for that matter, youthful, wealthy immune systems), be enough to shield the few from the consequences killing the unlucky many? Will private pools or the pose of carefree leisure prevent infection—biological, economic, emotional, etc.—from piercing the veil of privilege?
If you’re a Cheever believer, the answer is probably not. (I think, at least? Maybe I misread the story.)
And if you’re not—well, enjoy the pool parties, I guess.