Saturday, July 17, 2010

THE NATURAL by Bernard Malamud


The Natural is a 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud; it inspired the eponymous 1984 Robert Redford film, to which it bears only passing similarity. Here, the talented Roy Hobbs, a thirty-five-year-old rookie, tries to make a name for himself in Major League Baseball after a psychopath’s gunshot nearly killed him when he was nineteen.

The story is loosely based on the true story of Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, and also heavily includes elements of baseball myths and legends, most notably that of Shoeless Joe Jackson. These elements give the story a fantastical side – it often feels one step away from  a Márquez-esque magical realism.

Malamud’s writing style is unusual, and not in a good way. He will speed through big chunks of dialogue in narration, often in mid-conversation. Malamud keeps the pages turning (this is a short book), but this feels more like a quick fix for boring conversation than good writing. And The Natural features a jarring non-use of contractions in dialogue, but only half the time, which makes many lines feel stiff and unrealistic.

Most of the supporting characters here are cartoons; only Roy and Pop have any real depth, and Roy isn’t sympathetic because he continually allows himself to be distracted from his goals, makes bad choices, and doesn’t learn from his mistakes.

All the elements of a morality tale are here, but it doesn’t feel like one, mostly because Roy doesn’t learn anything throughout the book. There’s too much death and despair and no redemption. The Natural isn’t a great baseball novel, either, because of the way Malamud handles fantastical myth elements and because he gets carried away with his descriptive epic metaphors and glosses over much of the baseball action itself. Plus Roy Hobbs seems to do nothing besides hit home runs and strike out.

In the end, The Natural is a quick read with some tantalizingly interesting elements that don’t often work well together.