Beneath the Surface lurks obsession
Peter Rock has written something that – to begin with – reads like an autobiographical novel. It begins in the 90s on the Door Peninsula of Wisconsin, where the narrator, a man recently graduated from college, and a young widow, Mrs. Abel, swim together at night, making their way across miles of open water.
The nature of these night swims, and of his relationship to Mrs. Abel, becomes increasingly mysterious to the narrator as the summer passes, until the night that Mrs. Abel disappears. Herein lies the true allure of the novel. Because it is most definitely a novel – maybe with remembered fragments at its heart – who knows, but we enter the land of fiction when we open the pages of ‘The Night Swimmers’.
Swimming at night: to compare its slipperiness to that of a dream would be to ignore the work of staying afloat, the mesmerism brought on by the rhythm, the repetition of the strokes. That night, I passed Peterson’s Point, fingertips brushing the rocky bottom in the shallows, then out into the blacker depths. I felt in that moment the possibility that I was upside down, and the air had gone thick, the water thin, that I was suspended somehow over the blackness of the sky.p. 16
Twenty years later, the narrator—now married with two daughters—tries to understand that time. Thru the book we learn about his obsession with her disappearing, and he starts digging into old notebooks and letters, as well as clippings he’s preserved. Somehow, it becomes clear that the narrator tries to rebuild a world he has lost—those searching and uncertain drives, his vague wish to be a writer. He also searches for clues to the fate of Mrs. Abel, and begins once again to swim distances in dark water.
That summer, swimming: out to Horseshoe Island, around i we followed the curve of Nicolet Bay and further south, through all the dark boats moored offshore of Fish Creek. Pirate Island, Adventure Island, Little Strawberry. My body has never been able to go further than it could, that summer. The flat black water, the moonlight, the waves and weather, the edges of storms. Below, around, invisible: the smallmouth bass, the perch, the carp and catfish and bullhead, the trout, the whitefish. The sturgeon hovering even deeper, perhaps, straight out of the Pleistocene with their shovel noses, their smooth skin, not a bone in their body, all cartilage, and their bodies longer than mine, stretched out as I was, swimming across the surface above them, swimming with Mrs. Abel.p. 201
Latent eroticism seeps thru the writing in this quote, and there are more spread around the novel. Sex is never mentioned, but if swimming is a metaphor for sex (it is) they have lots that summer… and that might explain the obsessions from a 40 something father of two.
North, past Little Sister and Sister Bay, then the Sister Islands. We swam distances through the darkness while everyone onshore slept in their houses. The two of us swam and the lakebed rose and fell beneath us, the currents and stars all around us.p. 201
The book is lyrically written and I love his writing about swimming, but just like the relationships with Mrs. Abel it leaves us wanting more. It is unfulfilled potential in book form you might say, and the story itself is not strong enough to merit a novel, a novella maybe. I’ll leave it at that and give you one more beautiful quote about swimming.
True, I knew the lakebed I swam across, its features and secrets, yet I did not know what the black water between it and the surface where I swam, what those currents held. The surface currents pushed and pulled me, they kept me from swimming a straight line, the currents of the Great Lakes subtler and quietly more sinister than those of the ocean, hardly whispering as they attempted to pull me astray. I could not be pulled astray; I had no investment in my destination. I only wanted to be out there in that weather, playing along, knowing that rip currents would pull a swimmer away from shore and that it was always a mistake to swim against them, to panic, to exhaust oneself. You must swim with a rip current, for a time, swim across and learn from it, to be patient and aware, also, that the currents of the subsurface are likely to be moving in different directions, at different speeds.p. 17
The Night Swimmers by Peter Rock
Hardcover, 272 pages, published 2019 by SOHO Press