Literature’s Great Swimming Pools

11 of the most memorable chlorine castles ever dreamed up by humankind. They go from sexy to gross to gruesome really quickly.

Silver Spur Motel Restaurant Swimming Pool Greenville, Texas, via Flickr.

The sea is an image endlessly described in literature — an ineffable, uncontrollable mass looming just beyond our hometowns and our imaginations. Pools, on the other hand, offer us something different. Yes, they may be giant contaminated vats of bodies, germs, and definitely urine, but they’re also staples of summer and a reminder of the season’s possibilities. The presence of a pool is never a simple matter. If Jung’s theories have any merit, bodies of water, especially the artificial constructions that are part of our homes, offer great insight into the psyches and unconsciouses of people in and around them. For some, they are embodiments of order, structure, even control. For others, class symbols. Without a doubt they’re the backdrop for a fair share of literature’s steamiest, most memorable scenes. And always, pools conjure up the glories of a season full of sweat, splashing, sleeping in, a season of perpetual youth.

So, if you’re slowly cooking in the relentless summer heat, here’s a list of books and short stories featuring swimming pools in all their evocative glory, in hopes that even the descriptions offer a little bit of a cool-down.

Burt Lancaster in ‘The Swimmer’ (1968)

1. “The Swimmer” by John Cheever

John Cheever’s short story begins on a summer Sunday afternoon as everyone laments the poor drinking choices they made the night before. The main figure of the story, Ned, decides he will swim home via his neighbors’ swimming pools. In the beginning of his “journey,” his mood is vibrant and happy. However, with each passing pool darkness looms and Ned’s sense of self wavers. The story takes readers on an emotional roller-coaster that is as temperamental as the summer weather.

2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Picture this: a limp body floating in in the pool, surrounded by a growing red cloud, slowly threatening to sink to the bottom. Sound familiar? It’s a classic murder scene in books and movies alike. Ditto for The Great Gatsby. But, Gatsby’s pool is more than just the bearer of his body after he is brutally shot; it’s also a class symbol and the embodiment of all that has happened in the novel (especially between him and Daisy) — it is the summer.

3. High Dive by Jonathan Lee

As can be garnered from the title, a swimming pool plays a pivotal role in High Dive. But how is swimming in any way related to a book focused around a plot to kill Margaret Thatcher? Well, it refers to the once vibrant diving career of one of the book’s characters, a man who is now out of shape and on the cusp of crisis. He decides to attempt a dive while at his local swimming pool, and well, it doesn’t end great. In the book, diving through the air into a swimming pool — a moment of vulnerability and possibility — is both a physical sensation and a mental, metaphorical image of possible despair.

4. The White Album by Joan Didion

In her book of essays, Didion discusses swimming pools a number of times. She expresses her consistent desire to own a swimming pool, especially as a Californian suffering through the drought. She posits that pools are wrongly thought to be symbols of wealth and hedonism. “A pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the western eye,” she writes. Towards the end of the novel, there is a powerful image of Didion sitting at the shallow end of her sister-in-law’s pool when they get a call from a friend telling them about the murders of actress Sharon Tate Polanski.

5. The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

The cautionary Greek myth of Narcissus runs between the lines of this novel. The Pregnant Widow’s pivotal image is a group of young university students sitting around a pool in Italy, looking at themselves and each other, observing changes in the world around them. It takes place in 1970, and there sure was a lot shifting back then, especially in gender dynamics.

California Soul: A Literary Guide to SoCal Beach Towns

6. The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño

“I Can’t Read,” a short story in Bolaño’s collection of stories, features a classic case of peeing in the pool: “urinating, not in the pool, underwater, as almost all kids do, but from the edge, for everyone to see.” The act, although an embarrassing one, means so much more than that; it’s a representation of the characters’ friendship and one’s existence within the world. Deep, I know.

7. The Diving Pool by Yōko Ogawa

In Ogawa’s novel, romance blossoms at the local pool, where teenage Aya is enamored of Jun — and his diving. Their situation is complicated by the fact that he is her foster brother, and she just can’t stop looking at his muscles: “warm and soften like silk floss.” Sounds steamy.

8. “Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace uses imagery about a pool to talk about a boy’s growing up and all of the unglamorous bodily changes that accompany it. A boy standing at the edge of a diving board contemplates the question some of us ask ourselves every day: what am I going to do with my life? Realizing that the pool is a “system of movement,” the 13-year old boy has the courage to “step into the skin and disappear.”

10. “Hello Everybody” by AM Holmes

This story talks about a type of people that we all know, or at least have heard of: “pool people.” They live in LA, avoid getting wet to preserve their constantly new hairdos (yet wear bathing suits all year-long), love AC, and are terrified of old things. Generally, a pretty chilling image.

11. “Man Boob Summer” by David Gordon

In “Man Boob Summer,” David Gordon describes the assortment of characters that can be found at pretty much any pool. Screaming kid, old man exposing WAY too much in a speedo, an attractive lifeguard…This story has got it all.

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