The Night Swimmers

A new novel by Prof. Peter Rock is a mysterious mix of memoir and fiction.

Angie Jabine ’79 | June 23, 2019

For a certain kind of swimmer, there is an aliveness to open water that a clean, chlorinated pool just can’t duplicate. For an even rarer swimmer, open water by night seduces in a way that daylight swimming never can.

The narrator of The Night Swimmers is that rarer breed, a swimmer on friendly terms with darkness and disorientation, unfazed by “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.”

In this 10th book by Prof. Peter Rock [creative writing 2001–], a 50-ish, Portland-based writing professor recalls the night in his 20s when he encountered a kindred spirit, a widow in her 50s. On subsequent summer nights, without telling a soul, they swim for miles, barely speaking, naked in Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. One night, far from shore, the woman stands briefly on a hidden shoal, then vanishes. He searches the water frantically for hours. Days later she emerges—he hasn’t alerted anyone to her absence—but can’t rationally explain how she survived two nights underwater, alone. It is this fantastical notion that buoys the story.

The Night Swimmers is a sort of metafictional scrapbook, studded with allusions to supernatural phenomena, quotations about life and art, and excerpts from correspondence with the narrator’s wife and ex-girlfriends. Teasingly, Rock shows us a painting of himself at age 10, and photos of his two real-life daughters. His nameless narrator acknowledges the care he has always taken to present a certain appearance, with just enough self-disclosure to appear open and approachable even as he curates a persona: what to fabricate, what to disclose, what to withhold.

In a flotation tank in Southeast Portland, the narrator revisits his long-ago night swims, “trying to recollect, to see what will find me as I float in the black silence, a space that is not a space, where I am both naked and have no body.”

Over the years, siren-like, the widow has both discouraged and encouraged his inquiries about what happened to her on that summer night. He returns to the vacation cabins more than once, alone and with family; showing his daughters his old hiding places, sifting through memory’s detritus. Finishing the book is a bit like completing a jigsaw puzzle only to find that several pieces are missing. You can guess what they show, but you’ll never know for sure. 

Tags: Books, Film, Music, Professors