Review: The Natural

the-natural

The NaturalBernard 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.

Take Me Out To The Ballgame

Rocky_Colavito_1959

Rocky Colavito in 1959

I’m writing this post on the Opening Day of the 2016 baseball season. I grew up in northeast Ohio and even lived in Cleveland and I’ve been a lifelong Indians fan. To be an Indians fan is to be the definition of longsuffering. I totally get Cubs fans. I keep hoping for a Cubs-Indians World Series. One of them would have to win.

Truth is, I enjoy anything from a major league game to a sandlot game with a group of kids. The rules, the strategy are the same–all that changes is the skill level. I can think of few better places to spend a summer evening than a ballgame. These days we most often make it to a Columbus Clippers game–the Indians Triple A affiliate.

One of my other summer pastimes is to read at least one baseball book. In recent years these have included bios of Mike Piazza and George Steinbrenner, both gifts from my son and David Halberstam’s account of the ’49 Yankees. So many writers who excel in other genres have written great baseball books–Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Brooklyn Dodgers and George Will (several baseball books) come to mind.

This year I return to my beloved Indians. Every Indians fan talks about “the curse of Rocky Colavito.” In 1960 Indians GM, Frank Lane, traded this home run hitter to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn. Colavito was the 1959 home run champ and beloved in Cleveland. And the trade, and many others in the Lane years, resulted in over 30 years of mediocre teams until 1995 and 1997 when the Indians won pennants. In 1997, fans may have concluded the curse was still alive when the Indians were within an inning of winning the Series leading 2-1 in the ninth of the seventh game only to have the Marlins tie the game in the ninth and win the series in the eleventh.

Terry Pluto, a Cleveland sportswriter, has popularized the idea of the curse. The 1994 edition of his book, The Curse of Rocky Colavito, which looks like a trip down a memory lane of unfulfilled hopes, is on my “to read” pile for this summer. Checking Amazon, it turns out there is a 2007 update. I kind of wonder if another is on the way. It’s been a long wait since the 1948 World Series Championship (before I was born).

The other baseball book on my list is a classic 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud eventually made into a movie by the same title, The Natural, in 1984, starring Robert Redford. Some consider this one of the best novels ever written about baseball. I’ll let you know.

If you are a baseball fan and a reader and haven’t started the tradition of the summer baseball book, maybe this could be the year. Chris Foran, an entertainment editor from Milwaukee has posted a great list of new baseball books. If you can’t make it to the ballpark, you can always sit on your porch or patio on a summer evening with a good book that takes you there.

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks…