Bernard Malamud: The Natural
Malamud’s first novel may be his best-known, primarily because of the film, starring Robert Redford. However, the film does differ in some respect from the book, particularly the ending which, of course, is much happier in the film. The hero is Roy Hobbs. The name evokes both hob, as in hobgoblin as well as the great cricketing hero, Jack Hobbs. The novel also uses several elements from Arthurian legends from his Excalibur-like bat, Wonderboy, to the Fisher King wound he suffers from Harriet Bird. However, the novel is primarily one of the best baseball novels.
Hobbs is a nineteen year old pitching phenomenon. He is off to Chicago to try out for the Cubs. On the train with him are Whammer Wambold, a Babe Ruth character, Sam Simpson, the scout who discovered Hobbs and a sportswriter. Simpson bets the sportswriter that Hobbs can strike out Wambold on three pitches. He wins the bet but the price he pays is that Harriet Bird, intent on shooting an athlete, shoots Hobbs instead of Wambold. Hobbs’ baseball career is seemingly over. Fifteen years later, now thirty-four, he shows up to play for the New York Knights. Pop Fisher is sceptical, not least because the owner, Judge Banner, has been dumping poor players on the team to drive it into the ground. Relations between Hobbs and Fisher do not start well but, once he plays, he hits everything in sight and the Knights start doing well. The former star hitter, Bump Baily, is resentful, particularly when Hobbs shows an interest in Mercy Paris, Fisher’s niece and Baily’s girlfriend. Mercy, however, is not interested in Roy and, partially because of this, he goes into slump. He snaps out of only when he sees a woman standing in the crowd, Iris Lemon. They have a brief affair but he is still interested in Mercy. But as he is, at least in the book, a fallen hero, he ends up – at least spiritually – dead.
As mentioned above, you can read all the Arthurian allusions – Fisher King, Excalibur and so on – or you can just read it as a great baseball novel. It’s funny that the best sports novels are generally baseball novels – no great cricket, football (soccer), etc. novels. But this one works as a baseball novel and as an excellent novel, even if baseball isn’t your thing.
First published 1952 by Harcourt, Brace