Review by Amy D. Lerner
Although critics have often overlooked Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel The Natural in favor of the author’s later novels and short stories—including his Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Fixer—The Natural is his first and possibly most popular novel: It was made into a 1984 movie starring Robert Redford; named one of the top 100 sports books of all time by Sports Illustrated in 2002; and cited by Nicholas Dawidoff in the Wall Street Journal in 2008 as one of the top five novels about baseball.
The Natural tells the story of a naive but naturally gifted baseball player from the Midwest, Roy Hobbs, who is shot and critically injured just as his career is about to begin. Fifteen years later, that his baseball career receives a second chance, albeit with the worst-ranked team in the league: the New York Knights. While raising the status of the team, Hobbs falls for manager Pop Fisher’s niece, Memo Paris; he is also intrigued by a mysterious fan, Iris Lemon, who seems to bring him good luck. Add to all of that Malamud’s baseball commentary and a storyline in which the team’s co-owner tries to bribe Hobbs into throwing the final game of the season—not to mention Hobbs’s ensuing inner turmoil—and the novel reaches an abrupt and striking conclusion.
Although The Natural was published more than 60 years ago, it is still recognized as tantalizing, groundbreaking fiction writing today. In a sense, Malamud followed the example of Ring Lardner, the early-twentieth-century sports and short-story writer who also combined fiction and baseball. But with The Natural, Malamud set the stakes higher. This is a modern novel that skillfully incorporates ancient themes. The plot echoes the story of the Fisher King and Perceval’s search for the Holy Grail: “Wonderboy,” a magical baseball bat, is Roy’s Excalibur; the (surely carefully named) Pop Fisher, the team manager, the king who yearns for the Holy Grail of championship.
Malamud’s other novels and short stories may exhibit more obvious Jewish themes and characters, but one might argue that The Natural offers his most “American” writing. Set in the baseball heyday of the 1930s, the story doesn’t revel in star worship or depict Roy Hobbs as the best player there ever was—in contrast with the movie version—but rather depicts a deeply flawed man who also had a great athletic talent. As Harry Sylvester wrote in a New York Times review of the book back when it was first published: “In his telling and always deliberate use of the vernacular alternated with passages evocative and almost lyrical, in his almost entirely successful relation of baseball in detail to the culture which elaborated it, Malamud has made a brilliant and unusual book.”
Amy D. Lerner is a freelance editor, former assistant editor at Stackpole Books, and mother of two girls. She lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and blogs along with the rest of her family at https://marchingtothebeat.wordpress.com.