Reviewed by Joe Walters
A deeply poetic memoir about two friends and their quietly changing lives
Joseph Haeger’s memoir Learn to Swim is an exercise in memory. The author pulls out small snippets of scenes of a previous friendship and drops them into our heads, allowing us to visualize and get to know a genuine young man who changed Haeger’s life forever—even if it was just by being right there beside him.
The short scenes in this book are dreamlike and wave-like, creating a reading experience that reads like poetry but looks like prose and makes you feel like you’re a part of it. I hopped from memory to memory, from laugh to revelation. The young friend (only called “He” and “Him” and all its variants) is characterized in the silences on the page, in very distinct moments that linger well beyond the final chapter. His kind but stern reactions to rowdy friends help us understand him, and his presence when Haeger needs him most helps us care for him, too.
“See a crack in the cement. Smell a certain scent. Hear a certain note. A certain style. Memories will come raining.
“With each drop a vivid picture will pop into the head. A smile. A sob. A laugh. A moment.
“I feel every drop sting.”
Learn to Swim follows Haeger and He’s friendship through adolescence. As the young boys turn into young men, He manages to stay miraculously mature, illustrating his defining traits as loyal, intelligent, and present. The friends are willing to admit that they need one another, and it’s so very refreshing to hear about it. I haven’t read a lot of boy-friendship books (because, uh, feelings?), but this memoir eschews that stereotype and allows for an honest exploration of a friendship of young boys who work well together and know it.
The writing in Learn to Swim is exquisite. It works in a way that anyone could pick it up in their local bookstore, flip to a random page, and jump straight into something special. Nearly each small section offers something unique about this friendship and young duo, guiding us toward an ending that we might not feel too ready for.
“It’s like that Boy Meets World episode where Corey gets married.”
As the memoir progresses, the voice and actions of Joseph Haeger grow more mature, more understanding. We long for the young men to stay friends, for nothing to happen in the latter half of the book, and for this special thing to continue forever. It’s got a quality that makes you believe in friendship, that makes you realize how we grow together and how sometimes it just takes some time to understand how special everything really was.
In the end, I’m thankful that I spent time with Learn to Swim. I enjoyed the ride with its poetic language and quiet narrative change, and I’m confident that you’ll catch yourself pulling for these young men like I did, hoping that it’s not another “Corey Gets Married” episode and instead that our friend is waiting just around the corner.
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