About this title:
The Night Swimmer, Matt Bondurant’s utterly riveting modern gothic novel of marriage and belonging, confirms his gift for storytelling that transports and enthralls.
About the Author:
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.
Matt Bondurant’s second novel The Wettest County in the World was a New York Times Editor’s Pick, one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Best 50 Books of the Year, and has been made into a major motion picture retitled Lawless, to be released in August 2012. His first novel The Third Translation was an international bestseller, translated into fourteen languages worldwide. He currently lives in Texas.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 t...
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