The Natural by Bernard Malamud

January 17, 2011

thenatural Plot summary (with spoilers): Nineteen-year-old Roy Hobbs is a highly skilled ballplayer on his way to Chicago to potentially sign a pro contract with the Cubs. Roy knows that with his abilities, he can become the best the game has ever seen, and he’s anxious to prove what he’s got. But he falls victim to Harriet Bird, a serial killer who goes around shooting up-and-coming athletes (no, seriously). Though Roy survives, the incident obviously affects his playing days.

The plot then skips over 15 years and we next see Roy as a 34-year-old who is going to give baseball one last try. We don’t get any details about what happened in the time between the gunshot and the present, but Roy hints that he simply moved around from place to place, working a series of odd jobs and collecting disability insurance without doing anything substantial. Why he hasn’t tried a baseball comeback before now is a mystery that the author never explores. At any rate, Roy signs a contract with the New York Knights for the minimum rookie wage.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows after Roy gets to the pros. For one thing, he raises a few eyebrows as a 34-year-old rookie. It’s unusual for a player that old not to have a past, and this fact intrigues reporter Max Mercy, who gets the feeling that he has seen or met Roy before but can’t place him. For some reason, Roy wants desperately to keep his past a secret, leading him to worry about Max’s probing questions. For another thing, Roy gets off on the wrong foot with head coach Pop Fisher by refusing to participate in some positive thinking/brainwashing exercise. As a result, Roy is benched for the first three weeks. After Roy is finally allowed to play, he makes an immediate splash. He is a natural, hitting home runs with ease and making spectacular catches out in the field. The Knights, formerly in last place, start making a run for the pennant.

This new-found fame and notoriety leads to added complications for Roy, who now gets involved with two different women, Iris Lemon and Memo Paris. Iris loves Roy and seems devoted to him, but Roy is turned off by the fact that she’s a grandmother at the age of 33. He is much more attracted to the beautiful Memo, going so far as to daydream about being married to and having kids with her. But Memo is hung up on the memory of Bump Bailey, her former flame who died after crashing into the outfield wall. Moreover, Memo is the kind of woman who needs lots of money and material comforts in order to be satisfied.

The rest of the novel then shows how Roy manages these conflicts. He has to wrestle with morality when the owner of the Knights offers to pay him $35,000 in order to throw a playoff game, he has to deal with Max Mercy’s persistent invasions, and he has to choose between Iris and Memo. Unfortunately, contrary to final scenes of the film, Roy doesn’t go out in a blaze of glory and end up playing catch in an idyllic field with his son.

Liked:

  • Despite Roy not being a very likable character, I found myself interested in what happened to him. It could just be because I like baseball and sports books, or that I enjoyed the movie and wanted to see how the original novel compared. Whatever the reason, I kept right on reading, no matter how slow the action got.
  • I liked the Wonderboy stuff, but I think I missed the part in the book where it says Roy carved the bat out of a tree that was struck by lightening?? Was that mentioned in the book, or was that just a Hollywood invention?
  • Speaking of Hollywood endings, I loved how Roy didn’t actually hit a home run in his last at-bat that shattered the stadium lights — all while dripping blood from an open wound and using a Wonderboy substitute. Wow.

Disliked:

  • Just as in the movie, the part with Roy smacking the cover off the ball was pretty cheesy, especially since it happened in his first-ever at-bat after his manager told him to do just that.
  • I didn’t understand why it was so important for Roy to cover up his past. He didn’t do anything wrong, so what was the point? He could have saved himself a lot of worrying and fretting if he just explained what happened. Heck, he could’ve earned $5,000 for writing the story for Max!
  • Was it reasonable to believe that Roy would have burned the bribe money the judge gave him? After all, the game was over and he already felt guilty about going along with the ploy to begin with — even if he tried to salvage some self-respect by actually trying during his last at-bat. He knew his career was over; surely he would have kept the money, right? He wasn’t exactly a Boy Scout to begin with, so this miraculous change of heart didn’t feel right.
  • I wish Roy didn’t end up with Iris because he didn’t deserve her at all.

Rating:

The Natural by Bernard Malamud wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. Even discounting the movie version (which was significantly different anyway), the book seemed to be lacking in quite a few areas. To be sure, it’s a quick, often interesting read, but there are too many unanswered questions and missing elements for it to be called satisfying. I give the book 3 stars out of 5.

Leave a Reply