The pervasive consumption of alcohol throughout the story sharpens the distortion of time and Neddy’s sense of unhappiness. The drinking, serving, and desire for alcohol become significant motivators for Neddy as well as a way to measure his social standing. At the beginning of the story, everyone is complaining of having drunk too much the night before, but they have gathered companionably at the Westerhazys’ pool to drink again. Neddy drinks gin before he decides to swim from pool to pool, and his swim home is marked as much by fresh drinks as by new swimming pools. At the Bunkers’ party, Neddy feels comforted and happy when he is given a drink, whereas at the Biswangers’ party, he feels slighted by the way his drink is served. As his journey grows more difficult, Neddy wishes deeply for a drink but is often turned down, once at the Sachses’ and once at Shirley Adams’s. His desire for a drink grows stronger as he grows weaker, and the amount of alcohol he has consumed during his journey could explain the harsh, bewildering emotional place in which Neddy finds himself at the end of the story.
Images of maps and exploration regularly punctuate “The Swimmer,” highlighting the gap between Neddy’s perceived understanding of his happiness and direction in life and the messy confusion that eventually takes over. When Neddy gets the idea to swim home through the pools in his county, he sees himself as a brave explorer, setting off for the unknown from a home base that is stable and secure. Neddy likens himself to a “legendary figure” who is making an important discovery, and as he begins his journey, he calls himself a “pilgrim” and an “explorer.” When Neddy envisions his friends’ pools, he sees them through a mapmaker’s eyes, even though the narrator tells us that Neddy’s maps are imaginary at best—the first hint that Neddy’s sense of direction and place is flimsy. The lighthearted fantasies about exploring eventually disappear as Neddy’s journey grows harder and stranger. By the end of the story, Neddy has literally lost his way. He thought he was moving through familiar territory, but the home where he finds himself, dark and empty, is someplace he’s never been before.