By Kevin Baker
Bernard Malamud was thirty-eight years old when he published The Natural, his anti-heroic tale about a baseball player whose ambitions and desires are constantly thwarted, and one can’t help but wonder how much of the story reflects the author’s own frustrations. It was his first novel, and while thirty-eight is still young for a writer, if not for a ballplayer, Malamud’s career had already been deferred for years by his need to scrape out a living during the Great Depression, and then by the Second World War.
The Natural is Roy Hobbs, a pitching prodigy who begins literally in darkness, streaking through a train tunnel in Malamud’s superb, opening sentence, where he “pawed at the glass before thinking to prick a match with his thumbnail and hold the spurting flame in his cupped palm…” Like The Agamemnon, the action in The Natural commences with a struck flame—and like Agamemnon, our hero will soon have his hands full.
Before Hobbs can even get to his big tryout in the Big Town, he strikes out the Ruthian Walter “The Whammer” Wambold—in another wonderfully vivid scene, set at a carnival beside a train stalled at dusk, somewhere out in the heartland—and he is shot and almost killed by a deranged female fan he thought he was meeting for a hotel-room tryst. The rest of the book picks up an embittered Hobbs in his mid-30s, just as he has finally clawed his way back to the big leagues as an outfielder, and is impatiently, recklessly, trying to at last claim the laurels—and the financial rewards—that he is convinced should have been his long ago.
Readers of a certain age will recognize the model. Up until maybe a generation ago, most public libraries still held shelves full of boys’ sports novels. They were a venerable line of American hack writing, churned out relentlessly by sportswriters and novelists, or even a major college basketball coach such as Clair Bee.
The excuse for their existence was an educational one. Their stories usually marched stoutly through a season to the final, big game, drawing upon the natural drama of any sporting contest, and imparting life lessons freely along the way. The hero was sometimes a professional athlete, more often a high school or college star. He was always blessed with great gifts, though his natural ability had to be molded and disciplined, lest it betray him and the team. He tended to have a mysterious pedigree, as heroes often do, and he invariably had to overcome some failure, even some dark secret from his past, in order to win through.
In The Natural, Malamud draws heavily upon this genre, then stands it on its head.
For starters, Roy Hobbs is certainly as talented and as mysterious as any boys’ sports hero, even to himself. We are told next to nothing about his past, though from what little we do learn it seems to have been a nasty, brutish existence, relieved only by idealized romps through the countryside with his faithful dog. Young Roy has grown up literally in the backwoods, in “a green world shot through with weird light and strange bird cries,” and he is too poor to own so much as a wristwatch. His mother was “a whore” who “spoiled my old man’s life” and once drowned a fully grown cat in a bathtub, before abandoning the family altogether. And yet Roy longs to return to the forest, sometimes with a new family of his own, sometimes alone; even conjuring up a vision of himself, complete with dog, emerging from the woods along a lonely, nighttime road—and then only to allow his apparition to be run down by a speeding car.
It is this ambivalence, this teetering between boundless ambition and the desire to return to the womb of anonymity, that Malamud deftly uses to keep the reader off-balance. Hobbs never seems to doubt his raw ability and neither does the reader, not after he strikes out the The Whammer. And yet Hobbs’s dreams are still dashed, deformed into an inchoate, aching need—in part by fate, mostly because of his own, foolish decisions.
If the story does reflect Malamud’s own feelings, though, he is bracingly free of self-pity. There were many such deferred lives at the time The Natural was written, and it is juiced with the cynicism and disillusionment that permeated American letters in the years after the war. It is hard to find a truly likable character in the entire book. Nearly everyone is playing an angle, out for themselves. Women are depicted as symbols of danger, or deceit, or of simplistic purity, to the point of misogyny. Men are almost as bad. Beggars spit on the sidewalk, and curse the passersby: “You’ll get yours.”
Massed humanity, for Malamud, is even worse. His crowds turn against their heroes on a dime—and their creator almost seems to exult in their savagery. Before the big game, “fist fights broke out all over the stands,” and a man wrongly accused of gashing another man’s head open with a rock is thrown out of the park by the police, where his own head and his glasses are smashed by still another fan until, “He spat out two bloody teeth and sat there sobbing till the ambulance came.” Elsewhere, a beaten man makes “groans and squeals” and “had a bowel movement in his pants.” A little roadside game, to settle a small wager, immediately turns into mortal combat, its contestants yelling “Close your trap,” “Cut his throat with it,” and “If he tries to dust me, so help me I will smash his skull.” It ends with one participant fatally wounded.
It was Malamud’s brilliant conceit to convert the national pastime into this life-and-death struggle. Baseball has always been an American simulacrum: the green, pastoral game, with its playing field that stretches on forever, but which has its roots planted firmly in the hard city. Like Olmsted and Vaux’s greensward parks, the ballpark is a swath of idealized nature, plunked down in the middle of an urban block and meant to reform us, morally and physically. Malamud is having none of it. His baseball is very much a business, and one that exposes the worst in us all.
Yet for all of that, Malamud the Brooklyn boy clearly knows his ball, and he revels in its rituals and eccentricities. He gives us a crackerjack pennant race, and some terrific games. He takes an obvious delight in the ruffles and flourishes of old-time sportswriting, even as he sends them up, and his own descriptions of the action are elegant as well as ironic. Thus, the batter “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.” One pitch is “a whizzer but dripping lard”; another “floated in, perfect for pickling…” Hoary baseball cliches come miraculously to life. Roy literally knocks the cover off the ball, and he can catch everything in creation, even if that includes an unfortunate, errant canary.
Malamud lingers lovingly over a scene in which Roy is given a “day”—a now extinct ritual, and one that will come as a revelation to those fans who grew up in the era of the millionaire utility infielder, wherein everyone chipped in to give a favorite ballplayer a host of both practical and bizarre consumer goods, including, “two television sets, a baby tractor, five hundred feet of pink plastic garden hose, a nanny goat, a lifetime pass to the Paramount, one dozen hand-painted traveling neckties offering different views of the Grand Canyon, six aluminum traveling cases, and a credit for seventy-five taxi rides in Philadelphia.”
Above all, though, the story of The Natural is taken from the most vivid and tragic legends of game. Its immediate inspiration was the real-life case of one Eddie Waitkus, a first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies who was also shot by a deranged woman in a hotel room. Here, too, is Pistol Pete Reiser, who could not keep himself from running into walls, and Shoeless Joe Jackson, who threw the World Series. Here are Veeck’s midget, Eddie Gaedel, and Babe Herman, and Babe Ruth with his called shot and his terrible bellyache, and Hilda Chester, clanging her cowbell out in the Ebbets Field bleachers, and players who hit home runs for critically ill boys, listening over the radio from their hospital beds.
Malamud cuts through the mythology that encrusts all these fabulous things, but his vision is, finally, darker than even objective, American reality. Ruth’s famous bellyache, after all, was no more than a blip in his gargantuan career—not Hobbs’s horrifyingly insatiable hunger, which only increases the more it is fed. Eddie Waitkus had never even met the fan who shot him; he married his attending nurse, and recovered in time to help the Whiz Kids win the pennant the next year, and by all accounts lived happily ever after.
Malamud is after a deeper sickness of the soul, and his Hobbs is closer to another baseball prototype, the phenom who comes out of nowhere to set the world on fire. He is, perhaps, Mickey Mantle, signed by a bird dog scout roaming the backroads of Oklahoma in a Cadillac, and brought up to the big club as a teenager—only to corrode his matchless skills through years of drinking and carousing. He is Joe DiMaggio, the Joe DiMaggio we know now through Gay Talese and Richard Ben Cramer; cold and bitter and aloof, yet with those perpetually boyish eyes, still full of hurt from the time the fans turned on him back in 1937.
Yet these comparisons do not quite work, either. DiMaggio, after all, ultimately learned how to work the system, carting away plastic bags full of money from mobsters and baseball card shows; and even The Mick turned hero in the end, excoriating himself in public in the hopes of saving his sons from his own fate.
Roy Hobbs is more the mirror image of Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), that other befuddled, angry, post-war man who never will learn. Unlike Loman, Hobbs is supremely talented, yet he is no better able to fathom the schemes of lesser men, or to unravel the snares that life has set for him. Like all geniuses, he is staggering in his self-absorption. Hobbs can be cruel and remarkably callous, even toward the woman who has saved him. He cares nothing for the fans, and little for his teammates or his long-suffering manager, and he hubristically ignores every portent and superstition. He is greedy and ruthless, preoccupied at all times with making the money he believes his talent entitles him to make—and yet he foolishly squanders both his talent and the money and things he desires so intensely. He drinks and eats and fornicates thoughtlessly, and in the big, final game, he wastes one critical swing after another in order to hit foul balls at a midget who has been taunting him from the grandstand.
Malamud is unflinching in the integrity of his portrayal, and it is this that carries The Natural to its ultimate triumph. Hobbs is one of the most thoroughly unsympathetic heroes in the history of American literature. To be sure, his ambition is not purely mercenary, but even his desire to have “broke most every record there was” is blind and blunt; American gigantism, run amok. One can feel little real pity for any character who has so assiduously shaped his own doom. The best that the reader can manage, right down to the last page, is the same sort of atavistic horror one feels upon seeing the faces of Michelangelo’s sinners, realizing only too late they are damned forever, just as Roy Hobbs “wept many bitter tears” and realizes at long last, “I never did learn anything out of my past life, now I have to suffer again.” It is only then that we realize how thoroughly human he is.
Kevin Baker is the author of three novels, Sometimes You See It Coming (Crown, 1993), based loosely upon the life of baseball great Ty Cobb; and two historical novels set in New York City and published by HarperCollins, Dreamland (1999) and Paradise Alley (2002). He was also the chief historical researcher on The American Century, by Harold Evans, with Gail Buckland and Kevin Baker (Knopf, 1998), and writes regularly for a number of different newspapers and magazines.
He lives in New York with his wife, the writer Ellen Abrams.