Book Review: The Natural

Thursday, September 02 2004 @ 12:08 PM EDT

Contributed by: Thomas

A review of the classic baseball novel The Natural by Bernard Malamud.

Book Review: The Natural

One can determine a lot about a person from what they choose when they are given two or three options. From obvious choices like political ones (Democrat, Republican or Independent and Conservative, Liberal or NDP) to less obvious choices such as Macs or IBMs, the answers are very revealing. Most frequenters of Da Box are part of the great Canadian minority that chooses baseball over hockey, and it reflects very well on them.

A great example of a choice like this is presented when one looks at The Natural (the movie) versus The Natural (the book) .

They are both fine products. Everyone here loves a good baseball movie, and The Natural is exactly that. The 1984 film features strong performances by some classic actors such as Robert Redford, Wilford Brimley, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger and Glenn Close, which really bring the characters to life. The baseball scenes look quite authentic, and the old uniforms and ballparks are brought to life wonderfully on the screen.

However, like most adaptations of books, the movie simply isn’t as good as the novel on which is it based. Bernard Malamud’s novel is a classic story, about life, told through baseball. It details the story of Roy Hobbs, a baseball legend beyond his time. Hobbs experiences a fall from grace, but then receives a chance for redemption in his thirties.

The novel opens with a teenage Hobbs on a train for a tryout with the Chicago Cubs. He is accompanied by Sam Simpson, a recovering alcoholic scout who discovered him in the country and who hopes to permanently return to the scouting world with his discovery. A naïve Hobbs has never traveled further than Boise, and on the train he soon meets three-time MVP Walter “The Whammer” Wambold, newspaper reporter Max Mercy and a woman passenger, Harriet Byrd, who he develops feelings for.

After some heated talk between Simpson, who is trying to sell his star to the established press, and Mercy, who is a good friend of The Whammer, a challenge is agreed upon. Hobbs has to strike out The Whammer on three pitches. The two players, who are both competing for Harriet’s affections, agree to the challenge and the opportunity to show one another up.

Hobbs, an outfielder by trade, throws the first pitch by The Whammer. The next pitch evades his bat as well, setting up the penultimate third pitch with an anxious crowd, including Harriet, looking on. Roy throws the third pitch by The Whammer to strike him out. The unknown prospect has struck out the three-time MVP and his future seems unimaginably bright.

The train nears Chicago, and Simpson falls ill to the effects of alcohol, leaving Roy without his mentor. Roy checks into a hotel and tries to prepare for his upcoming tryout with the Cubs. Coincidentally, Harriet has checked into the same hotel, and she invites Roy over to her room. The soon-to-be star accepts, and rushes over for an amorous encounter. However, the scene is a trap laid by Harriet, and she shoots Roy, injuring him seriously.

The book jumps ahead sixteen years when the New York Knights, a club spinning its wheels at the bottom of the standings, sign Hobbs to a contract, where he’ll serve as the last option off the bench. The Knights are managed by the warm, caring Pop Fisher, who has a lifetime contract to manage the Knights. He fell into monetary problems and is fighting off an unscrupulous owner who owns a large portion of the team and is trying to drive Fisher away from his managing job and any voice in the franchise’s future. Stuck with a lame duck team Pop doesn’t take kindly to a player who plays the same position as his star player, Bump Bradley; especially not one who refuses to hit without his lucky “Wonderbat.”

Everything in this novel is significant, and while I couldn’t always tell if the symbolism stood for something in particular, recurrent themes helped highlight key events and draw the reader’s attention to a detail. From old mentors (Sam Simpson and Pop Fisher) to believers in Roy’s talent (carnival girl and Iris Lemon) to proven stars Roy is trying to outshine (The Whammer and Bump Bailey), everything in this novel seems to repeat.

His second chance around is the exact same as his first chance, with everything having a different name. Roy gets an opportunity to experience what so many have wanted which is a second go at something, and he knows the pitfalls that led to his demise the first time.

Malamud is an outstanding writer, and his prose alone makes me want to pick up some of his other novels. As the Time review on the inside cover of my copy says, the novel is “preposterously readable.” Malamud’s writing has aged in the fifty-two years since the book has published, but I would still describe the book with that phrase, as it doesn’t make it any harder to read. He makes the book come alive with wonderful descriptive passages and very believable interactions between the characters, especially Roy Hobbs and his female love interests.

He describes the scenery with vivid penmanship, and while many find the fantastical elements of the novel to be a negative, Malamud’s writing makes it very easy to suspend your disbelief. It reminded me a lot of W.P. Kinsella, another writer who many accuse of being too fantastical, but whom I love to read. It was hard to believe that Max Mercy wouldn’t remember Hobbs sixteen years later, or that Roy could accomplish some of the feats that he did. To Malamud’s credit I found myself barely noticing that element, which often bothers me in other books.

Malamud draws upon real baseball incidents for some of his plot devices. One scene, where a trucker with a boy in the hospital begs Roy to hit two homers for the child is drawn from a famous incident with Babe Ruth, and a hilarious, although fictious, one with Paul O’Neill.

Apparently the entire story is based on a MLB player named Eddie Waitkus , who was shot by a 19-year-old female fan devastated over his trade from the Cubs to Phillies. Waitkus had been an all-star in 1948 and 1949, but after his shooting he would never be an all-star again, nor would he ever have a slugging percentage over .400. The most amazing part of his story might be that he was playing baseball in 1950, the year after he took a rifle blast in the chest and underwent four operations. He helped the Phillies to the 1950 National League championship, but the formerly sociable and easygoing first baseman apparently turned into a suspicious recluse after the incident.

Malamud is obviously using baseball as a metaphor for life; exploring the opportunity of a fallen hero to receive a chance at salvation. It’s an unusual theme for a baseball novel, but it works wonderfully. The movie and the book are quite different in parts, so if you have seen the movie don’t think that the book will be a repeat. I much prefer the book, both because of the detail and the differences. The differences might not be for everyone, but it resonates with me in a way that the movie never did.

The Natural is an excellent novel, both in terms of plot and style. It works well for both fans of baseball and those who aren’t interested in the sport, as it’s about much more than baseball. If you think you’d be interested in the novel, do yourself a favour a pick it up, it’s well worth reading.