Learn to Swim by Joseph Edwin Haeger is a poetic story so full of jaw clenching moments, smiles and tears (“teers”), and heart tears (“tares”) that has been hard to review. The complexity and originality here is on full display from the beginning. Told in snippets from Year One onward, you are dropped into a story you have to tell for yourself at first. The author gives you the character outlines, and if your direction does not match up with who you are eventually introduced to fully, it does not matter- the story is yours to develop.
I met him in fifth grade. He had moved from Seattle. We were in
the same class. We were on the same soccer team. And we went
to the same church.
I walked up to him and asked how he liked playing soccer.
He stared up at me from his desk.
“I don’t play soccer,” he told me.
I saw him that night at practice.
This is not a poetry book, it is a poetic book. I wish there were ways for me to relate the full experience in a condensed form, but it would be impossible. This is a prose poem novel, the long version of the short story you love already, the poem you did not want to end.
I found myself laughing at times- at moments that bore no need for laughter, and were actually improper moments to laugh. But I think that was the desired effect. To give us the opportunity to laugh at things we should not, identifying ourselves in another’s story.
Moments we have all had, moments we’ve all endured:
When he first moved here he sat with the cool kids at lunch. He
was becoming one of them in the first two weeks.
He played footsie with the cute girls.
He played tag football at recess with the boys.
Then we started talking and he sat with me and the other self-
declared rejects at lunch.
I wonder if he ever regretted this decision.
Then there are passages that are just FUNNY, too, in a “sneak-up-and-trick-you” sort of way- tugging at the heart of childhood and innocence; a wonderful excuse to lean into joy:
I stayed the night at his house one weekend.
He kept me awake with his farts. I told him to stop too many
Finally I stood up and started getting my things together.
“Okay, I’ll stop,” he said, “sorry.”
I laid back down on his floor and didn’t hear another fart all
I didn’t know someone could fart on command.
I will not give away too much of the story arc, but I will say that this is both a philosophical and emotional journey into how one person deals with all of life’s sweet and terrible moments. Not only do the laughs catch you off guard, so do the tears. I read this book several times, including once in public (which I don’t recommend if you are uncomfortable with public displays of emotion), and each time it felt fresh and new. This is a book you can read time and again, and not only enjoy, but find something you may have missed, something you may begin to think of differently. This is a play you cast and direct however you see fit. And Joseph Edwin Haeger is one hell of a playwright.