Booklog: The Natural

July 9, 2007

The Natural
Bernard Malamud
Read: 6.27.07
Rating: Fair

Sometimes a book disappoints, either because it does not live up to the expectations I held before I began reading, or because it displays signs of promise early on only to falter towards the middle and/or end. Alas: The Natural was disappointing in both ways.

As moviegoers know, The Natural is a baseball story. What the reader should know is that the novel on which the movie is based is less a baseball story than a quintessentially American tale of myth, heroism, and failure — topics that are perfectly suited to post-war era baseball, the Golden Age of America’s greatest sport. In this near-mythic setting, Malamud chronicles the rise, fall, second rise, and final fall of his folk hero, Roy Hobbs, in a winning (at first) style that attempts to create a folk mythology with vernacular-laced, stripped down diction. The style takes some getting used to, but after a few early successes, I took to it, and it seemed that Malamud had really accomplished something. Take this sentence for example, that describes the third strike that the young Roy Hobbs tossed to strike-out “the Whammer,” baseball’s leading hitter:

The third ball slithered at the batter like a meteor, the flame swallowing itself. He lifted his club to crush it into a universe of sparks but the heavy wood dragged, and though he willed to destroy the sound he heard a gong bong and realized with sadness that the ball he had expected to hit had long since been part of the past; and though Max could not cough the fatal word out of his throat, the Whammer understood he was, in the truest sense of it, out.

This is very nice, and I underlined with great relish, looking forward to another 200 pages of Malamud’s folk hero-mythology.

So what went wrong? First of all, Malamud has no ability to describe the sport that is his main subject. When his style strays from the mythic into the descriptive, it’s clear that he hasn’t really understood baseball and how it is played or spoken of. It’s possible that his slang is accurate — hard to tell, since it’s fifty years old — but when he writes about the game itself or the people who play it, it’s hard to read. A deeper problem is that Malamud’s folk mythoheroic style is dense and murky by default, especially in regard to his characters and their motivations and thoughts. Roy Hobbs is clearly meant to be a vague figure, but this is very problematic, for his choices and his character, especially his love affairs, are what drives the book’s plot and meaning.

The Natural‘s failures are oddly appropriate to its structure, and analogous to its hero: it begins with an appealing strength and freshness, and surges during its early career, only to stumble when it should clinch. The book’s final act is a disappointing failure, which is richly ironic, given that disappointment and failure are the book’s main themes.


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