Book21: "The Natural" by Bernard Malamud
In 1923, at the tender age of 19, Roy Hobbs just may be the best player in baseball. Hobbs just struck out Walter "The Whammer" Wambold, the league's FORMER best, in three pitches, and is now on his way to try out for the (cursed) Cubs.
Unfortunately, due to mitigating circumstances, Hobbs never arrives for his try out.
It takes another sixteen years for Hobbs to show up to the big show, but he does show up, on the door steps New York Knights. The Knights boast the current best player in baseball, Bump Bailey, but thanks to poor team morale and ownership, they also boast a sorry record. All of that is about to change though, when Hobbs proves to be a monster on the field driven by the goal of breaking every major league record and the natural ability to do so.
Bernard Malamud's "The Natural" is lauded as the best novel written about baseball, and though I am not well-versed in novels written about baseball, I can see why critics say so. For his first book, Malamud's story telling is fantastic. He doesn't waste a word or paragraph; the story always moves forward without lagging. The characters are believable and Malamud spends no more time than is necessary to show you the heart of each character. Best of all, the characters are human. You can't peg any one character as the good guy or the bad guy; you can't pigeonhole them into a cliche or stereotype. Every character is motivated by his or her own reasons, same as we all are.
At the center of all of it, of course, is Roy Hobbs, The Natural. Hobbs plays the part of the great sports hero. He catches every ball that comes his way; he hits every ball out of the park no matter what the pitcher throws at him. Just like the great sports men in real life (Jordan, Ali, Tiger, etc.), Hobbs was put on this Earth to play the game; his game. He has that focus, that non-stop competitive drive, that singular hunger for greatness that is the sole purpose of his being. But also like those great sports me in real life, Hobbs is still human. He can't hit a game-winning homer to fulfill a dying boy's wish on a whim. He resents the fans and the press when they turn on him and he isn't afraid to show it. He gambles and chases a pretty skirt. Despite all the great and seemingly miraculous feats he accomplishes on the field, Roy Hobbs is still only a man; and the great joy of the novel is watching Hobbs, who should be more than mere mortal, be nothing more than that.
Before I knew about the book, I knew there was the movie, equally respected and revered as possibly the best sports movie ever made. All I knew about the movie, other than the fact that it was about baseball, was that it starred the immaculate Robert Redford, and for that, I must see it as soon as I redeploy home. Not necessarily because it stars Robert Redford, but because I'm interested to see if Redford can pull off a convincing Roy Hobbs as Bernard Malamud had created him. For me, Redford embodies that perfect greatness, that legendary sports hero who is a Hercules of a man (which is a funny metaphor since Hercules had his own fair share of "human" problems and fallacies), but that is not Roy Hobbs. Bernard Malamud's "The Natural" isn't the story of the great sports hero of legend; it's the story of the human man behind the legend.