The Night Swimmer, Matt Bondurant’s utterly riveting modern gothic novel of marriage and belonging, confirms his gift for storytelling that transports and enthralls.
In a small town on the southern coast of Ireland, an isolated place only frequented by fishermen and the occasional group of bird-watchers, Fred and Elly Bulkington, newly arrived from Vermont having won a pub in a contest, encounter a wild, strange land shaped by the pounding storms of the North Atlantic, as well as the native resistance to strangers. As Fred revels in the life of a new pubowner, Elly takes the ferry out to a nearby island where anyone not born there is called a “blow-in.” To the disbelief of the locals, Elly devotes herself to open-water swimming, pushing herself to the limit and crossing unseen boundaries that drive her into the heart of the island’s troubles—the mysterious tragedy that shrouds its inhabitants and the dangerous feud between an enigmatic farmer and a powerful clan that has no use for outsiders.
The poignant unraveling of a marriage, the fierce beauty of the natural world, the mysterious power of Irish lore, and the gripping story of strangers in a strange land rife with intrigue and violence—The Night Swimmer is a novel of myriad enchantments by a writer of extraordinary talent.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practiced swimmer as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore. But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?
Herman Melville , Moby-Dick
It began with a dart, a pint, and a poem, three elements that seemed to demonstrate the imprecise nature of fate. When Fred stepped up to the line, the dart held loosely in his hand, you could see in the way he carried his body the assurances of a man who was well prepared. Fred was always lucky, but to say that now seems to remove something essential from him. In fact it is Fred who should be telling you this story, as he was the one preparing for this all along. Not me.
The judges in green suit jackets stood by with clipboards and the rest of us, the other contestants, the wives, girlfriends, family, and other various hangers-on, quietly drank our free pints of Murphy’s in a cavernous pub in the city of Cork, Ireland, 2002. There were thirty candidates in the first round, drawn from thousands of entrants. The contestants seemed all cut from the same mold: all men, between the ages of twenty-five and forty, with that bearing, look, and attitude you see in bars all over America and the world; a sort of studied nonchalance, an ease with the environment of drink and bar sport, the verbal acuity, the ability to hold drunken court. Average, unaffected attractiveness, most a bit on the portly side. Roughly manicured facial hair. The kind of men who excel at giving toasts at a wedding. Fred loved to give a toast almost more than anything. He coached me through one I gave for my father’s retirement party.
Under a minute, Elly, that’s the key, he said.
We devised a simple recipe of amusing story, then heartwarming anecdote, finished with a touch of personal sentiment. Neat as a pin: laugh, cry, cheer.
The Murphy’s contest was a sort of dilettante’s challenge, which suited my husband. Fred moved between interests like an errant housefly, but he had a focus of attention that was astonishing and exasperating, like the boy so enamored by the spider that he doesn’t feel the rain. The first prize was a pub in Ireland, title and deed.
It was a common enough dream for young Americans of a certain set: by moving into a mostly imagined past, represented by Europe, we could recapture something we so desperately wanted in the present. Or simply a way out of the meat grinder of the suburbs. We named our place in Burlington Revolutionary Road, a joke that no one got as far as we could tell. It was Fred’s idea. Fred always wanted to admit our hypocrisy and failings. He could have been a champion medieval monk, so adept he was at self-flagellation. Fred felt if we got it out in the open, acknowledged our defeat, then it wouldn’t turn out so badly for us.
By the time he won the contest Fred was nearly crushed by the six years he’d worked in corporate training. When he started at the company, fresh out of graduate school, they were still using paper handouts and the same binders on memo writing they had used in the 1970s. Fred came into the Burlington headquarters with effective ideas and churned out a few PowerPoint presentations, and in a year he was the senior consultant in charge of product development, creating a new line of seminars, communication presentations, and short talks on effective e-mail writing strategies. We bought a house near the lake in Burlington and settled in. I got a part-time teaching job and spent most of my time swimming in Lake Champlain. I’d come up the road from the lake and Fred would be out on the deck mixing a pitcher of margaritas, some kind of meat sizzling on the grill. It was a good life. We should have considered what it was we were giving up when we moved to Ireland.
One evening Fred’s father called us from a seaplane, circling over our neighborhood. He was looking for a place to land.
Anyplace to get a steak in this town? he shouted over the drone of the engine.
Fred was half in the bag, crouched by the fireplace with the phone contemplating building a fire while I lined up a couple shots of Patrón with salt and lime. This was the year before Fred won the contest, and it was a night when it felt like the world was going to sleep, a sensation as calm and benevolent as stretching out in a length of warm salt water.
Dad? Fred said into the phone.
I need landing coordinates, his father shouted.
We could hear the whine of the seaplane outside as he banked above the lake, coming low over the trees. Too low, it seemed, and for a moment I thought of the providence of power lines, water towers, other tall structures.
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, I said.
Fred waved me off, a slice of lime in his hand.
Do you see the marina? That’s your best bet. We’ll pick you up in fifteen minutes.
I was always amazed how Fred would spring into action whenever his father called. He had taken to spending most nights wearing headphones hunched at his computer for hours in a kind of priestly attendance to solitary ritual, listening to obscure Internet radio stations, typing whatever came into his head. Fred was a big bear of a man, but at his desk he looked like a little boy sitting in a tiny chair, surrounded by tiny furniture, a tall pint glass of bourbon on ice beside him. He swayed with his eyes closed, tapping away at the tiny keyboard, composing long strings of nonsense.
Like automatic writing, he would say, flushed and grinning, massaging his sore ears. Like Yeats. The Order of the Golden Dawn.
We did the shots of Patrón and slipped on our raincoats. It was October, and the cold was coming down from Canada like whitewater, and the lake effect spiked the moisture content. In another few weeks it would be snow, and by December the lake frozen in the shallow bays.
Better bring the bottle, Fred said.
It was pouring when we reached the marina and the lake was flat and oily black, perforated by the fine mist of rain, and I considered the possibilities of hurling myself into that darkness, the weight of my coat and boots, the flight and suspension, my hands dividing water.
Hamilton Frederick Bulkington Jr., or Ham, as everyone called him, was coming in too fast. The plane sashayed across the water toward the dock, the back end swinging around, spraying water in sheets. Fortunately, the marina was empty of people, but the slips were still full and the gas dock had a few boats tied up. At the last possible second Ham spun the plane around and blasted the engines, then killed the motor and coasted in. By the time the tail section bumped on the dock, he was climbing along the pontoon, a leather valise in one hand and a massive hard-sided gun case in the other. He shook hands with Fred then handed him a line to tie off. He had gained weight since I saw him last, and the flesh was loose around his chin and ears, but he still looked like a man cut away from the stake. His charcoal pin-striped suit hung on him like a sweater on a dog. He turned and smoothed back his thin swatch of hair, the rain pouring off his face, and addressed me.
Elly. You look fit as ever.
Fred hefted the gun case.
Thought we’d do a bit of duck hunting, Ham said. First thing in the morning we’ll knock some down.
You can’t leave the plane just tied up here, I said.
This is a hell of a spot, Ham said, addressing the dark expanse of the lake.
Ham wanted dinner so we hustled off to the truck and Fred drove us into Burlington, to a new eco-friendly café built into the cavernous exposed brick cellar of an old timber warehouse.
Ham set his valise on the bar and took off his coat as we waited for a table. His shirt was stained down one side with something brown and fetid. He ordered us single-malt scotches, something Fred and I hated, and we clinked glasses with the somber formality of a doomed business transaction.
When’d you get the plane? Fred asked.
A guy I know lets me borrow it.
Do you have a license? I asked.
Not needed, he said slowly, in this kind of situation.
What kind of situation?
Ham waved his arms at the scene around us, as if to say, this.
He put his hand on Fred’s shoulder, something I’d never seen him do, and looked him straight in the face.
I’ve got something for you, Ham said, grinning. Something for my son, Hamilton Frederick Bulkington the third. And for the next Bulkington to come along, eh?
Fred blushed, surprised and clearly uncomfortable. For years Ham had barely taken an interest in Fred and now he was lobbying for progeny? We all looked away and took a swig of our drinks. Ham rattled the ice in his glass, trying to get the bartender’s attention.
We got a booth by the wall. Our waiter, a young woman with dreadlocks erupting from her head stood by with her hand-whittled pencil stub, her eyes glistening and shot through with crimson. Ham perused the menu with obvious disdain. It was printed on triple-recycled paper with root ink, making it hard to read.
What’s this shit? Ham said.
I got it, Fred said, and ordered a few rare grass-fed porterhouses, curried potato salad, and a bottle of heavy merlot. Ham was trying to light a cigarette with a packet of damp matches. Fred rapped his knuckles and pointed to the no smoking sign that was carved into the golden maple table in six-inch letters.
I’ve got decisions to make, Ham said to me. But first, the ducks. Four a.m. You have a suitable dog, yes?
No, I said. No dog.
Well, Ham said, with a note of asperity in his voice, someone is going to have to go in to retrieve. You up for it, Elly?
Fred laughed. I didn’t see the humor and I put the toe of my Wellington into his kneecap, making the recycled silverware jump on the table.
Ham frowned and reached over to stroke my forearm, something he liked to do.
My favorite newt, he said, our family amphibian.
I’d like to see you get in that water, I said. You haven’t the bottle for it.
Ham drained his glass and nodded.
Right you are there, Elly.
He ran his fingers along my skin. His eyes were like pinpricks of black, star-shaped and sunken.
That’s why we need you.
I have skin like a walrus. I have a condition called congenital hypodermic strata. Essentially it is a thin, even layer of subcutaneous fat deposits under the skin all over my body, all the way down to my fingers, giving my skin a dimpled surface. This fat layer makes my total body fat around 32 percent, which is quite high for a woman of my weight, and my body density is precisely the same as seawater, which gives me loads of natural buoyancy. I’m no Lynne Cox, but I can stand water most people can’t. Lynne Cox swam from Alaska to the Soviet Union in 1987 with no wet suit, five miles in forty-degree water. There is only one other known person who can survive water that cold, and that is an Icelandic fisherman named Dahlen who in 1963 swam a mile to shore from his capsized boat in Baffin Bay.
For everyone else, anything near forty degrees Fahrenheit without a serious wet suit would feel like a million burning shocks in every pore. After five minutes your limbs would begin to lock up, the blood retreating furiously into your heart. Your lips would draw back, your mouth convulsing for air, and the exposure could cause your teeth to freeze and shatter in your skull. A few more minutes and you would enter accelerated hypothermia, your heartbeat going adrift until you went into full ventricular fibrillation, your heart literally tying itself into a tangled knot in your chest.
I guess I’m lucky that the fat layer is thin and spread so evenly. You couldn’t tell unless you touched me, and I am told that it doesn’t feel unpleasant, just like someone with goose bumps. For the first few weeks we were together Fred thought I was always cold, and I let him believe it, playing along and shivering with what I thought was charming, girlish delight. I couldn’t pull that off for long, especially after the November afternoon when on a dare I dove into a lake in Massachusetts, Fred standing on the dock in his sweater and boots. But he came to love my skin, the feel of it, the same way I came to love the swatch of hair on his chest and his oniony smell.
My skin has helped to make me a good swimmer, as does being six feet tall with the wingspan of an albatross, but I can’t say I’m glad to have it. I have coat-hanger shoulders, my deltoid muscles like loaves of bread. Fred always liked to stroke the striated fibers of flat muscle that spread from my waist, like butterfly wings, he said. Of course I wish things were different.
By the end of dinner and our fourth bottle of wine it was clear that Ham and Fred were planning on drinking straight through to morning. They ordered dessert and then pulled out the bottle of Patrón. I abstained and asked the waiter to bring over four liters of distilled water with a wedge of lime. When she brought the water in carafes I stood up and chugged each one without stopping, making my stomach and bladder swell like a frog. Then I went to the bathroom to pee and wash my face and get ready to drive the Land Rover home. In the bathroom mirror my face looked hard and dry, my nose and cheeks inflamed, my pupils spinning disks. I dunked my head in the sink and tied my wet hair back in a ponytail. I was about to turn thirty, and so much about our lives was going to change. I closed my eyes and thought of the lake.
Anyone who has swum in a pool understands the palpable difference between the sensations of swimming in a few feet of water and in twelve feet or more. It shouldn’t feel different, but it does. It is the knowledge of that vastness beneath you that cannot be shaken or forgotten, something about the drastic proportions and ratios involved. To be nothing more than a speck, a mote of flesh, traversing a vast expanse of water, a long line of horizon, and to feel at once buoyed by the bubble of elements, hundreds of feet from the bottom, is a sensation that I think must be close to flying, like a great soaring seabird, wide-ranging and steady above the clouds.
I had been swimming competitively for most of my life, and for much of that time I harbored a punishing desire to be an Olympic champion, or to seek some kind of greatness on an international scale. It wasn’t until I’d burned out two years into college that I discovered that what I really wanted was to be alone in the water. I began to fill the void with open-water swims in lakes, rivers, and ponds, hurling myself into any body of water I could find, day or night: a beach house in the Outer Banks with old high school friends, camping by the shores of a muddy lake with Fred, the springs of northern Florida. My natural state seemed to be damp and clammy, my hair stiff with salt or lake scum. It was my only true source of satisfaction, when I felt most complete. Until I met Fred.
The mornings on Lake Champlain were often windy and brisk, so I took to swimming in the evenings after work. The beach officially closed at dusk, but people still hung about or paddled in the shallows, mothers with small children filling tiny plastic buckets. I was constantly amazed at the willingness of New Englanders to fling themselves into a body of water in often miserable circumstances. In a dead rain, the air temperature at fifty and the water at sixty, there would be a stumpy old man hacking out some laps and a few families with umbrellas frolicking in the water. I would walk out waist deep and stretch my upper body and gaze at the New York side of the lake, the sun setting between the humped shoulders of the Adirondacks. If the air was clear, as it often was, you could see the illuminated pine trees on the peaks lit like tiny hairs on a body. It would be night before I returned.
Lake Champlain was a dream in this way, one of the deepest freshwater bodies in North America, with depths up to six hundred feet in places. That kind of depth comes at you from the black bottom like throbbing psychic waves. On a clear night when it got late and darkness began to settle in, with those booming northern stars and the endless sheets of black, it was like swimming in orbit around the earth.
Back at the house Hamilton rearranged our liquor cabinet looking for scotch, even though we told him we didn’t have any. Fred had the music cranked up, some kind of jangly techno, and I was lighting candles. Ham started sweeping bottles onto the floor with lurching movements, grunting like a bull, and finally Fred grabbed him by his arms turned him away and Ham stood there, blinking in our kitchen, the light making his face look positively withered. I poured out a measure of Early Times, our late-night garbage drink, and handed it to him.
I just found this, I said, just some blended stuff, but it’ll do.
Ham smiled deeply and held the glass up to the light, the amber liquid sparkling. A half hour later he was sprawled on the couch. The rain had quit so Fred and I went outside on the porch to smoke a joint. I had triple vision and my head felt like cement, but Fred’s music was sounding good. Fred had said on more than one occasion that one of my finest qualities was my ability to drink like a stevedore. Fred brought Ham’s gun case out on the deck and opened it up. There were three guns in there, gleaming with oil.
Jesus, he said, as he hoisted a heavy shotgun.
Even I could tell these were some seriously expensive firearms. The stock was hand-tooled and embossed with all kinds of engravings, the barrel gleaming silver, like something a Spanish nobleman riding a stallion would carry.
Fred passed me the joint and pointed the gun through the white birch trees toward the lake. The moon was shimmering low, the color of cinnamon, reflecting on the black water.
I looked back through the glass doors into the living room, where Ham lay on the couch, bathed in the glow from the television. He was on his stomach, one leg hanging off with a toe on the ground, knee bent, like a sprinter exploding out of the blocks.
Well, I am certainly not going fucking duck hunting, I said. Good luck. I’ll see you when you get back. Don’t wake me up.
You have to go, Fred said.
My husband turned to me with distant alarm in his eyes, like a baby waking from a nightmare.
Please, he said.
It was already three in the morning and we were due to climb in a boat and assassinate some ducks in an hour. This was about the time I usually began regretting our drinking habits. Fred and I had become accustomed to cocktails before dinner, something that we felt was a purposeful indicator of our nostalgic bent and general fondness for the habits of that earlier generation who populated the works of John Cheever and other postwar writers. It was a generation who drank punch bowls full of scotch and water and did obscure dances on parquet floors, who ate small piles of nuts out of cut glass bowls, everyone helping themselves to the pyramid of cigarettes that were laid out on a silver platter, the lighter a heavy, two-handed affair that gave a satisfying click and a small, efficient flame. As the night drew on the laughter would increase, and frequently that party would revolve around an inert form on the floor, always a man, wearing a nicely tailored suit and often holding a hat. In the morning everyone coughed and spat like jockeys into scraps of paper before lighting up the first cigarette of the day, still wrapped in the wadded sheets of the bed, their spouses snoring with a steady, comforting intonation.
In Burlington, Fred and I had parties for my colleagues at the college, early afternoon affairs, a tall pitcher of martinis beading sweat on a wooden table on the back patio. We were the only ones who ever drank it. Our friends clustered like frightened birds, sipping their careful glasses of wine. We stopped stocking any wine or beer in an effort to force these people to have a cocktail but they were undeterred, always trundling a bottle of some shitty ten-dollar Australian red, or a six-pack of some esoteric, locally made beer. They would regale themselves with tales of former exploits, their wild youth, a teenage drunken mission to a suburban strip mall, the rathole hostel in Amsterdam, always with murmurs of amazement and self-satisfaction. Then after an hour or two these people shutting it down to head home, talking about babysitters and papers to grade and early mornings and then it would be ten o’clock and Fred and I standing in our empty kitchen, a half pitcher of martinis left, shouting at each other.
I awoke to the smell of frying meat. In the kitchen Ham was cooking a pile of bacon. It was ten minutes after four. While Fred and I got dressed he stuck the bacon between slices of white bread and wrapped them individually in tinfoil, then set them in the cooler, already packed tight with ice and beer. Fred’s johnboat was chained to a tree down at the beach, and we drove the Rover down onto the sand to unload. The sky was still obsidian but I could feel the Green Mountains at our back, casting a cold shadow. The lake had a light chop, the wind low and insistent, pushing the water into neat, angular peaks. With the three of us, the cooler, and the guns, we had about two inches of freeboard. I tried to back out again, but Ham wouldn’t hear of it. He was still wearing his pin-striped suit, his hair at odd angles.
We motored out to Crab Island and anchored in a small cove near the shore, close to some overhanging brush. There were birds everywhere, squawking in the trees, lighting out for their morning fly, hitting the water, ducks, gulls, terns, cranes, all kinds of things flying around. We could have swatted them out of the air with tennis rackets.
Mother of god, Ham said, we are gonna get a few.
Ham broke out the guns and I could tell by the way he was fumbling with them that he had only a rough idea of what he was doing. He was jamming ammo in the wrong places. He tried to hand me one, a real beautiful thing that had a kind of lacy scrollwork on the butt depicting mountain ranges, but I told him no way was I going to shoot a bird. He and Fred sorted out the shells and loaded up and got them pointed in the right direction. I grabbed a pair of earphones the size of softballs out of the gun case and clamped them on my head, bringing everything to a low hum.
What are we looking for, Fred said, what kind of duck?
That little fucker right there, Ham said, and swiveled his piece over and let go with both barrels at a fat brown bird that was paddling toward the boat, probably looking for a handout. The water exploded in a geyser in front of it and the bird leapt into the air. Then all the birds in the vicinity let out a collective shriek and took off in all directions, like someone let them loose at a parade. Ham was fumbling for shells that rolled across the bottom of the boat, the sharp smell of gunpowder in the air, Fred waving the barrel of his gun around like a lurching fool.
They went through the ammo in about two minutes. The only things they hit were a couple birds that never got into the air, and now several half-mangled birds struggled on the water at varying distances from us. Fred looked a bit green, gripping the edge of the boat, his shotgun broken open and the barrels hanging in the water. The fat brown duck, the one that Ham had opened up on, was closest to us, only about twenty yards away, and appeared to have been winged; he couldn’t get the flight process going. The shotgun pellets had churned up his feathers, soft downy tufts smeared with blood. I was hoping he would get up and out of there. Ham dug around in the case and sure enough came up with two more shells. I took off the headphones and the audible world rushed in.
That fucker there, he said, we are gonna have Peking style.
Fred made a noise, some kind of grunt, as Ham sighted the duck again.
For a moment I saw my hand swinging in a graceful arc, smashing my Labatt bottle across his temple, knocking his lumpy body into that cold water. Instead I decided to say something, some kind of request to let the bird live, but Ham had already let go with one barrel, knocking the duck clean out of the water, a full somersault. The duck righted himself, brayed a bit, and looked at us with something like defiance. Ham brought the gun up again but the duck bobbed his head once and went down, diving under the water in a blink.
We sat there with the water slapping against the hull, the remaining birds clearing out over the horizon as the sun was coming up over the mountains, flooding the lake with golden color. A few minutes went by. I’d seen ducks go down to feed but this guy stayed down a long time. Ham rested the gun across his legs and opened a beer. Fred had his head in his hands, his back humped over and I could tell he was going to be sick.
I’ve seen this before, Ham said. The blue grip. Happened to me in the Philippines, and once in Missouri.
What? I said. What are you talking about?
When a duck is wounded, Ham said, they sometimes know they will be shot again so they dive to the bottom. Grab hold of something with their beak. They hang on down there, trying to wait us out. It’s called the blue grip.
I looked into the water, dark and coppery, the dusty beams of sediment drifting in the unseen currents. We weren’t far off the shore, but the water must have been at least twenty feet.
Grab on to what? I said.
You know, Ham said, like a tree limb or something. Something on the bottom.
Fred was retching over the side of the boat, a pitiful sound, and I wanted to reach across and put my hand on his shoulder, comfort him. But I was on the other side of the boat, with Ham between us, spent shells, the cooler, the gun case all in the way. Fred’s vomit spread like a pool of oil around the boat, glossy and rainbowed. Ham was watching the water and trying to light a cigarette with another pack of wet matches. The duck was still down there, clinging to something. I leaned over the side, staring into the water, trying to see to the bottom.
He won’t come up, Ham was saying. They hang on down there until they drown.
At first I had the vague idea that I would swim down and save the bird, that maybe I could protect him. But after a few feet the darkness of the water made clear the impossibility of this task. Instead I stayed under and swam away from the boat and down, out toward the middle of the lake, into deeper water, where it remained the same temperature all year round, feeling that strange suspension, the crackle and thrum of that impenetrable, living water, the cold that cuts right through to the bone.
Fred’s last job was in August 2001, in Newark. His travel was heavy, but mostly on the northeast coast, New York, Philadelphia, Newark, and occasionally I’d fly out to spend the night with him. I flew in on a Friday evening and we had dinner in the corporate fern bar attached to the hotel, and Fred drank four double bourbons with dinner and he ordered the largest steak they had and barely touched it. Afterward he was clearly disconcerted and seemed unwilling to give in to something, so back in his room we smoked a joint that we rolled with some organic face-oil blotters I had in my bag. The pot was so overpowered by lavender that I don’t think it worked at all. I was watching Conan O’Brien while Fred stood by the window, peering through the tall vertical blinds, looking out over the parking lot, muttering to himself.
You don’t have to do this anymore, I said.
He turned quickly and regarded me with a shocked eye. I noticed that his beard was lopsided, the bottom trailing off to one side of his neck. The ice maker in the hall outside rumbled. On the TV a woman was whooping like a monkey at sunrise, while Conan duckwalked across his desk.
Quit traveling, I said. Send other people. The business won’t collapse.
He relaxed, his shoulders slumping, and he came to the bed and dropped his body across mine. The whine of cars on Interstate 95 made the windows hum like an organ, and I thumbed off his pants and we made love on the rough bedspread, the TV bathing us in the blue-white glow of sleepless midnight.
That next week Fred took himself off the schedule and split his jobs, which consisted of the high-end clients, among the two most senior trainers. The first job he assigned out was a training session at an Italian investment firm with offices on the eighty-sixth floor of the World Trade Center. A man named Duncan Avery, who had been with the company for twelve years, went in my husband’s place to deliver a presentation on interoffice communication techniques.
That morning Fred had convinced me to play tennis, doubles, with his friend Martin and his wife. I was terrible at anything that involved a ball or racket, but I wanted to support Fred’s decision to stop traveling and to spend time with him.
This was back when we didn’t have a TV and loved to tell people this fact. NPR was saying that a plane had crashed into a building in New York City, some kind of accident. Disconcerting, but we walked to the park down the street, Fred with a fresh can of balls, our rackets in hand, silently trying to connect the simple beauty of a morning of casual sport with churning industrial death. I will never forget the clean, fresh smell that came through the pine trees, the light touch of cool air on our faces, the scuff of our tennis shoes on the asphalt.
Martin and his wife were waiting for us, looking anxious and completely absurd in their tennis whites. On the courts a doubles game of elderly ladies was interrupted by a cell phone call, and they gathered together with anguished expressions. I think Martin said something to Fred about the planes, New York City. I remember his wife was looking at me with an expression of condolence, as if I had already personally suffered something.
We agreed to go over to Martin’s house to watch TV, and we spent the rest of the day there, Martin’s wife whimpering quietly and blowing her nose as we watched the towers fall again and again. Fred was in the kitchen shouting into the phone, pounding his hand on the counter. His eyes were red and his face a mask of rage, and we all left him alone.
Fred’s throw looked good from the start, the way he measured the board with a practiced eye and balanced the metal-tipped dart, flexing his elbow a few times, and then with a flick of his wrist let it fly. I’d seen him throw a thousand darts. He was good, but not so good that he could hit the bull’s-eye every time. After each throw the contestant’s friends and family erupted in a cheer or groan. Fred’s cheering section consisted of me, Eleanor Bulkington, his wife of three years.
When Fred’s dart hit bull’s-eye I roared, spilling my Murphy’s all over my hands. Only nine men hit the bull’s-eye, which meant they would go on to the next round, the pouring of the pint. The top three would go on to the third event, the poem recital. Fred turned to me with a look of astonishment, a look that said, this is it, this is really happening! We both knew the darts portion would be the toughest test for him, and in that second I believe he experienced one of those moments of real joy that come so rarely in this life.
I won’t be living in the bar, Fred said. I’m gonna write. Do some sailing.
That water is seriously cold, I said. I’d have to get a new wet suit.
Sure, he said. Whatever you need.
The truth is that from the moment Fred was announced as a finalist I had been mostly thinking about the North Atlantic Ocean. The steep green swells, foaming wave faces, the briny smell, the shock of the cold, the massive depth. The idea of it seized my heart in a cold fist, my skin vibrating with anticipation.
In our bed at night, the snows of Vermont whipping over the roof, Fred used to always talk about— maybe, someday —the little cottage we’d have, something with no real address and one of those delightful names like Three Chimneys. Our children would grow up tumbling across the heath and moor chasing a setter, and we would observe the quaint customs of the country, a narrow grassy lane bordered with box hedges, the battered Range Rover, scarves and tweeds and Wellingtons. In the summers we would steep our tea out in the small brick garden, snacking on cucumber and butter sandwiches. Slow afternoons at the local, having a pint. Some willowy brook where I would float like Ophelia.
A couple of kids, Fred said. We could name them Basil and Evelyn. They will grow up with charming accents and a fondness for lawn tennis.
In bed I liked to run my fingers through Fred’s chest hair as he talked with genuine wistfulness. It was something he so badly wanted, this other life. There was Fred’s father, and my own parents and sister to think of. Could we leave all that behind? And then this happened. We had a chance, and we took it.
This is hard to describe now. I will have to carefully measure the tone. In my mind it is a story without words, only the shrill cry of heartbreak. I think of how much time I spent with my head in the water, swimming long stretches of the lake or the churning green sea. I think of what happened on that windy shore, the broken harbor, a small pub on the edge of the world, and I am ashamed.
© 2012 Matt Bondurant
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Night Swimmer includes discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. At the beginning of The Night Swimmer, Elly says that when she looks back at her time in Ireland she is ashamed. Why does Elly believe she is to blame for what happened? Do you think the blame should rest entirely on her? How do feelings of guilt and shame motivate the characters in The Night Swimmer?
2. Elly reflects on the early days of her marriage: “By the time we were married I would begin to miss Fred almost the instant he would leave my sight. . . . Fred had such passion for me, for everything. I fed on it and became addicted to it” (pp. 98–99). Discuss the nature of Fred and Elly’s relationship. Do you think it is healthy? Why do you think their relationship is so intense? What ultimately draws them to each other?
3. What were your initial reactions to Fred? Do you find him sympathetic? Likable? When describing him in graduate school, Elly portrays him as being quarrelsome and grandiose. Can you understand why Elly fell in love with him? Why or why not? Discuss the change in his personality after they moved to Ireland. Was he losing his mind? Or was there something else influencing his behavior?
4. During a swim, Elly describes a sudden longing for Fred: “for the feel of his body on mine, his arms around me, and as I ascended through the water my loneliness felt like a place of habitation, a comfortable room that I could enter and stay. It was as if I was inside my own loneliness” (pp. 119–20). Discuss this passage. Can there be true comfort in loneliness? How does loneliness define the characters in The Night Swimmer? Consider Fred, O’Boyle, Sebastian, and Dinny in your response.
5. Elly says that her endless swimming is a distraction from the state of her marriage: “I would drag myself out of the water and shudder with exhaustion, and in those moments I forgot that my marriage was coming apart, the layers peeling away like pieces of a broken satellite reentering the earth’s atmosphere” (p. 167). What were the first indications that their marriage was falling apart?
6. Did you suspect Miranda’s true identity? Did you find her story and actions plausible? Why or why not?
7. Discuss the feud between Highgate and the Corrigans. What do you think is at the core of this long-standing dispute? Is it purely economic, as Patrick thinks? Or are there other deeper, more complex reasons?
8. Who is the young girl that Elly sees climbing the lighthouse at Fastnet? How does this passage introduce a supernatural element to The Night Swimmer? Did this plot point affect your interpretation of other events in the novel? Why or why not?
9. Other than wanting a grandchild, what were Ham’s motivations for drawing up the contract he presents to Fred and Elly?
10. The novel’s epigraphs are quotes from The Journals of John Cheever, and Elly frequently references the author throughout the course of the narrative. Are you familiar with any of John Cheever’s work? What do you think draws Elly to his writing? Consider Elly’s explanation in the following passage: “Cheever’s value to me is not merely as a storyteller but also as a model of the difficulties of navigating morality in an immoral world” (p. 137). Discuss the significance of this passage in regards to the overall tone of The Night Swimmer and to Elly as a character.
11. What does Sebastian represent to Elly? What does she get from him and their relationship that she does not get from her marriage with Fred?
12. Parent-child relationships play a subtle yet prevalent role in the novel. Consider the following advice Elly’s mother gives to Elly about motherhood: “Some women are mothers, and some women have children. I was no mother. I was just a woman who had children. . . . [Y]ou will likely have to confront this yourself at some point” (pp. 148–49). Do you agree with this sentiment? How do Elly’s own views on motherhood and having a child change over the course of the novel?
13. Discuss the passage in which O’Boyle tells Elly the story of his mother. What is the significance of the writing found on the wall near her body? How does this information impact Elly and Highgate’s connections to the island? How does this passage foreshadow future events in the novel?
14. In what ways does O’Boyle betray Elly’s trust? Were you surpised by his actions? Why do you think he befriends her despite his connection to the Corrigans? What is his connection with Ariel?
15. Although it’s not explicitly described in detail, what can you surmise about what happened to Beatrice when she and Elly were in high school? Although we don’t learn much about Elly’s reaction to this incident, how do you think it affected her? Discuss the significance of the passage about Elly’s performance at swim practice the day after Beatrice is followed by the three boys.
16. “This is the only story I will ever tell” (p. 272). Discuss your reactions to the conclusion of The Night Swimmer. Do you have any unanswered questions?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Matt Bondurant kept a blog about the research he did for The Night Swimmer and about his own experiences in the competitive world of open-water swimming. Visit mattbondurant.blogspot.com to read his posts about writing the novel and to watch video of him competing in open-water swim races. Do his descriptions of swimming remind you of any passages from The Night Swimmer?
2. To view photos and to learn more about the town of Baltimore in West Cork, home to the fictional Nightjar Pub, visit www.baltimore.ie. How do the pictures compare to the descriptions you read in The Night Swimmer? Discuss your reactions with your book club members.
3. If The Night Swimmer piqued your interest in open-water swimming, consider reading Lynne Cox’s memoir, Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer. Cox is referenced throughout The Night Swimmer and her story is truly fascinating. Like Elly, she thrives in frigid water and has completed swims around the globe that no one else has come close to accomplishing.
4. The Murphy’s-sponsored contest that Fred wins is actually based on a real contest held several years ago by Guinness. Consider serving a pint of Ireland’s favorite beer at your book club meeting. For a listing of Guinness food pairings and recipe ideas, visit www.guinness-storehouse.com/en/Taste_Of_Guinness.aspx.