Review by C.J. Bunce
Summer means baseball, and so it’s time again to delve back into the mythology of the game. Like every other American sport, baseball is very different than it was when Bernard Malamud wrote his first novel, The Natural, in 1952. At that point countless fictional stories had been written about the game, yet it’s his story that grabbed the attention of readers and it has since been referred to as both the first great baseball novel and the best ever written. The novel was made into a major film that was nominated for four Oscars and starred Robert Redford as hero/antihero Roy Hobbs–the film, too, is on many rankings of the best sports movies ever made. For those who have only seen the film, they’ll find most of the novel familiar, but several differences will make the movie more enjoyable for most. Roy of the book is an oddity but in different ways than the Roy of the movie. Malamud’s story is a dressing down of baseball more than an inspiring showcase of the great American pastime. The movie on the other hand is another film about a fractured sports hero who comes out on top in the end.
For its day, and without the benefit of all the great baseball stories, real or imaginary, that have been passed around since, Malamud’s novel is a fine piece of American literature. It’s about a young man who creates a baseball bat that he names Wonderboy. It either possesses some kind of magic, or it’s all in Roy’s head. Either way, Roy experiences the same bad luck (being at the wrong place at the wrong time results in Roy getting shot), misfortunes (he misses his opportunity to be a professional player because of the gunshot, and so he doesn’t get a chance again until everyone else says he is too old), trials (he’s constantly after the woman who doesn’t care about him when the one we all know he belongs with is right there in front of him), and successes (he eventually albeit briefly gets his fifteen minutes of fame). Yet Roy’s ego and the general lack of develop of the other characters result in a story with truly no one to care about. The baseball as backdrop is thin, nothing so deeply researched and vivid, for example, as Harry Turtledove’s The House of Daniel (reviewed here at borg.com last year). Malamud writes his baseball scenes with the feel of a radio announcer shouting out the stats during gameplay. His hero/antihero could be a driven character who fails and falls in any story (any sport or any vocation), and it feels like baseball is more of an excuse to tell Roy’s story.
Yet there is something about the aura of baseball that Malamud gets right. His novel does illustrate well the level of superstition among baseball players, which continues today. His cast of characters may have determined the similar stereotypical cast of characters in every baseball movie since. Yet Malamud couldn’t find a place for real women in a baseball story, so he populates his story with three odd characters: the first shoots Roy (and incredibly enough was based on a real incident, the shooting of Eddie Waitkus, derived from the dark recesses of baseball lore), the second only has value for Roy because she is attractive, and plays the siren luring him to the dark side (aka rigged gambling), and the third is like some kind of sign from God, a muse for Roy appearing from nowhere to make Roy win at baseball again after a long slump. So ultimately readers will need to dig deep to find the Americana in the book–hidden between the action you can find it as he revisits his dreams and memories of the past, as he looks out the train windows, and as he tries and fails to figure out what makes him tick.
The long paragraphs, run-on sentences, and details without consequence may not keep the attention of the modern reader. The story of Roy Hobbs is the story of working hard, misusing your natural gifts, and failing over and over to gain the success you seek. Unlike the film’s extensive modifications to the story, the novel has no happy ending, and we don’t even know for certain the future of Roy at the story’s end. So fans of the film going back to the novel will mostly be disappointed. The Natural the novel, is not as difficult a read, however, as reading something like Peter Benchley’s Jaws after watching the film–the only redeeming quality of that novel was the idea and a few characters. With Malamud’s novel the reader can at least understand the story the author was giving us. The only question is why he chose to tell this story–why should this story be a revered baseball tale, a story about this baseball player agreeing to take pay to lose the pennant, when everyone was already aware of Shoeless Joe and the Chicago Black Sox?
It may be difficult for readers to stick with Roy’s ego. It’s the kind of ego that makes someone want to be the best baseball player that ever lived, but not the “right stuff,” the kind that can back up the desire with success. He never does anything nice for others so we can’t see him try to be a nice guy. Where we might understand that level of a determined mind in a person striving to cure cancer, it’s hard to cheer for a guy who just wants to break every other person’s baseball records. Knowing your own faults and making the same mistakes repeatedly anyway coupled with an unlikable guy in general results in some dark places. And rather dreary reading.
For Malamud, this was only his first work, and he later said the movie is what legitimized him as a writer, although his novel The Fixer is what garnered him critical acclaim, including a Pulitzer. Because of its place in baseball lore, it’s worth a read for baseball mythology aficionados, but fans of the movie looking for a deeper experience may want to move on to one of the other baseball stories out there.
Still in print more than 65 years after its first publication, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural is available here at Amazon. The loosely-adapted movie starring Robert Redford is available on Blu-ray here.