Graham Swift, Learning to Swim and Other Stories (Washington Square Press, 1982)
[originally posted 14Nov2001]
Graham Swift is something of a one-trick pony, actually, but the one trick he does he does exceptionally well. This is less obvious when you’re reading the man’s wonderful novels—Waterland, for instance, which someone will hopefully soon canonize as one of the classics of twentieth-century literature—but when you get digging into a story collection, you realize that Swift, or a close family member, was in the throes of the nasty ending of a relationship while he was writing these stories. His main characters, at least those of an age to do so, are almost always divorced men, and the tale of the leaving wife is either the main thread of the story or part of the circumstance leading up to the main part of the story. Swift just takes that tale and paints it with different hues.
Any fan of Mondrian or his brethren will hasten to comment here that different hues are usually enough to make the same thing interesting anew. Indeed, and such is the case with Swift’s stories. Recognizing the similarity between the characters doesn’t make them any less interesting, and it certainly doesn’t lessen the top-notch quality of Swift’s writing, which has yet to flag in any book of his I’ve read even for an instant. The man is truly gifted.
It’s likely the publication date will give some readers pause. Yes, it’s a collection of short stories published during the nineteen eighties. And yes, that should set off justifiable alarm bells in the reader who’s been turned off to eighties lit. But what characterizes the good eighties lit (Vanderhaeghe, Swift, McInerney on his good days) and separates it from the bad eighties lit (Ellis, McInerney on his bad days) is emotion. Rest assured that Swift has emotion in spades. While his stories cover much of the same territory as those of his contemporaries, Swift is not the detached observer who narrated most eighties fiction; he is down in the muck of emotion, and has no qualms about dragging the reader in with him.
Another excellent book from Graham Swift. ****