The Natural, Bernard Malamud. London: Vintage Classics, 2002 (originally published in 1952).
Summary: The story of Roy Hobbs, whose promising career in baseball is nearly ended by a strange woman with a silver bullet and his attempt at 35 for one more season of greatness.
The story of Roy Hobbs is that of the tragic hero come to baseball. A number of you may remember the 1984 movie starring Robert Redford. I haven’t seen the movie but I sense the book is darker. The story begins with a young Roy Hobbs on a cross-country rail journey that recurs in dreams throughout the book as a symbol of futility. At one stop, he encounters The Whammer, a fading star who he strike out. He also encounters Harriet Bird who turns out to be a crazed serial killer of athletes, who nearly ends Hobbs’s life in a Chicago hotel.
Flash forward to Hobbs at 35, who finally makes it back to the majors landing a spot with the hapless New York Knights, their aging manager Pops, their star clown, Bump, his girlfriend Memo (where does he get these names?), the shrewd skinflint owner,Judge, the gambler, Gus, and the sportswriter, Max Mercy, who senses this is not the first time he has met Roy. Hobbs lands a spot, taking Bump’s place after Bump died running into a wall chasing down a long fly ball. Roy, and his bat Wonderboy, help lift the club into first place. Hobbs tries to get Memo back in his bed (he had slept with her after trading rooms with Bump only to have her, thinking he was Bump, jump in bed with him).
When he fails in his efforts, he ends up in a slump, only to meet the one woman who really cares about him, who he avoids after a one night stand finding out that she, though younger, is a grandmother. But she restores his self-confidence, the team gets into first place, and has to win one more game, which it fails to do because Hobbs voraciously eats himself sick. They are tied with the Pirates and have to win a playoff game to win the pennant. Hobbs is released in time for the game but offered a payoff if he will throw the game–a payoff allowing him to provide a life of style for Memo. Will he take the payoff, or remain loyal to the team and Pops.
The quest for greatness, the voracious hunger, and the penchant for dangerous women suggest a man searching for significance in the face of onrushing death. He is the hubristic tragic hero. Yet all this seemed cliche, from the names, to the “dangerous women” to the language he uses to describe these women. Maybe this portrays his shallowness, but it seemed overdone and heavy-handed, which surprised me in a writer of Malamud’s reputation.
This is considered a baseball classic but I was disappointed. A bit more subtlety would have been welcome. From what I can tell, this was early Malamud and perhaps he was learning his craft. Whatever was the case, this is a classic I can’t recommend, as pleasant as this might have been to read.