I am still reading books about baseball, and I just finished Bernard Malmud’s 1952 novel, The Natural. I’d read this before, many years ago, before the movie, and before picking it up again I remembered that I didn’t care for it, though I couldn’t remember why. I don’t think that I liked the depressing (or realistic?) ending. But it’s the Year of Baseball, and so I felt obligated. What would the Year of Baseball be without The Natural? A hollow sham, is what. A farce. A sad charade.
Many people have seen the movie. Many people have hated the movie. Roger Ebert for one. Most people probably know that the book is somewhat different from the movie, and I think a lot of people who don’t like it have a big problem with them changing the story. In the movie, of course, Hobbs hits the home run, wins the game, wins the pennant, wins the girl, goes back to the farm. Happily ever after. The end of the book is much more complex. He doesn’t win the ball game or the pennant. He’s in on “the fix,” then tries to redeem himself at the last possible moment. And he fails.
This time around, I liked the book quite a lot – the writing is great, descriptive, varied in tone and style, and surprising. Malamud has a nice way with small simple details, and all of the characters come across as complete and complex individuals. Hobbs story is a sad one, and perhaps a familiar one to Malamud’s generation. Hobbs made a mistake in his youth, and was knocked off the rails of his life. Hobbs back story is shadowy, we pick him up in the book as he heads to the big city full of youth and promise and a tryout with the Cubs, and then – suddenly and out of no where – he runs into the femme fatale, Harriet Bird, and his life begins its downward spiral. Malamud only hints at Hobbs’ intervening years, and this leads me to wonder what it is that brings Hobbs back, how does it happen that he suddenly shows up in the Knight’s dugout? Mere fate? I wish Malamud was a bit clearer on this (though perhaps I just missed it.)
The book is dense and layered. There’s a lot going on here, more than I want to talk about in a baseball blog. The way Malamud uses colors, and nature, and names, is purposeful and evocative. Did you know that “Hobbs”, for example, is a variant form of the name Robert, old English in origin and meaning “bright fame”? I wondered, in a novel where names seem important, why Malamud chose the name Hobbs, and, knowing this, it now seems to make sense.
I love the baseball scenes in the book, the pennant race, which ebbs and flows, with the Pirates the favorite, and the Knights sneaking up from behind. And I love the way Malamud has written Roy Hobbs. He’s like a kid stuck at age 19, wanting to be the best there ever was at the game. A couple of times he’s confronted with the shallowness of such an ambition. Is that all there is, Roy? For Roy, that is all there is. He’s a baseball player, and he wants to be the best there ever was in the game.
I’d highly recommend The Natural to anyone interested in good writing. While using baseball as its setting, it’s not really a book about baseball. This is a story about a guy with a gift, an ability, a dream, and how that was the ruination of his life.
Now to see the movie!