THE NATURAL might be considered an anomaly within Bernard Malamud’s oeuvre if it didn’t so closely resemble nearly everything else within Bernard Malamud’s oeuvre.
Actually, it’s considered an anomaly, anyway.
Earlier this year, the Library of America published two volumes containing all of Malamud’s work up through the 1960s. (A third volume, with the rest, is said to be on its way.) His novels and stories have subsequently received a fair amount of press. Conspicuously, The Natural, his first novel, hasn’t — in some cases, it’s been mentioned only so it can be dismissed. “The reviewer has not read and is not likely ever to read The Natural, a baseball novel said to incorporate a mythical theme,” Cynthia Ozick wrote in The New York Times in March. “Myth may be myth, but baseball is baseball, so nevermind.” In his survey of Malamud’s work for Harper’s, Joshua Cohen dedicated to The Natural fewer than 10 words — it “concerns baseball, a.k.a. frustration” — before moving on to discuss the author’s more discussed narratives. Likewise James Campbell, in The Wall Street Journal, cast it aside; he called The Natural “[Malamud’s] anomalous debut novel,” and quickly noted: “The two books that followed are probably his best.”
Published in 1952, The Natural is the story of Roy Hobbs, an unknown baseball phenom from an undisclosed West Coast location. (The most we learn is that, in his youth, Hobbs visited Boise and Portland.) At 19, a major league scout discovers him; a tryout for the Cubs is arranged. On the train ride to Chicago the scout dies, and Hobbs falls for a woman who promptly shoots him: “He sought with his bare hands to catch [the bullet], but it eluded him and, to his horror, bounced into his gut.” He is left for dead in a hotel room. But the reader intuits this isn’t the end: between his right hand’s forefinger and thumb there are 200 pages still to go.
We next see Hobbs 15 years later, when he appears in the dugout of the hapless New York Knights, cellar-dwellers of the National League. It’s up to him to lead the Knights to the World Series. The rest of the novel proceeds like this: the Knights win; the Knights win; they lose; they lose; they lose; there is a woman in a red dress; there is a woman in a white dress; there is some more winning and losing and, at season’s end, the Knights are tied for first place with the Pirates of Pittsburgh. Only one team can win the pennant and go on to face the Yankees. Will Hobbs muscle the Knights to victory? In the movie, starring Robert Redford, he does. It’s an iconic moment, likely the most famous sequence of any baseball movie. The ball leaves Redford’s bat and goes up, up, over the fences — Glenn Close (white dress), laughing and touching her face, can’t believe it! — crashing finally into the stadium’s lights, which shatter in slow motion, raining glass and sparks upon the players and their fans as Redford rounds the bases. In the book, Hobbs strikes out swinging.
One must concede that this is a novel about baseball. And Malamud was aware the subject would likely not be taken seriously. “Why baseball?” he writes in Talking Horse, a collection of his thoughts about his work:
Considering my background and interests. Part of the challenge—to test the power of the imagination. Bellow: a good writer can write about anything. This is true of only a certain type of good writer. (Can Hemingway, for instance, write humor?) […] Books are about people. Baseball is a meaningful part of the American scene.
In outline form he continues,
How to handle the material:
- how treated in the past—superficially by Lardner, Broun, and others. The characters were close to grotesques or caricatures […].The humor was based on their inadequacies as people; it was basically cruel. Baseball when described realistically as a game is boring. How to enrich characterization, humor, and the game itself?
- decision—treat the material symbolically to give it a more meaningful quality for me.
He goes on to explain, unnecessarily, that Hobbs’s bat is a phallic symbol, and the waters of Lake Michigan represent fertility, and the character named Pop is a father figure. It’s difficult (at times too difficult) to ignore the book’s semiotic map work, and the theme of individual moral failure to which this map work points. Endowed with exceptional talent, and with an inner drive to be the best, Hobbs fails again and again. He brings failure on himself — he chases women, he breaks training — and this gives his failure dimensionality: failure isn’t imposed on him; he is its collaborator. And so The Natural doesn’t only concern a gifted athlete’s trials in the big leagues (that would be boring) but is also rather a tale about the very human inability — one likely known by Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Manny Ramirez, Barry Bonds, Miguel Tejada, Roger Clemens … — to live up to one’s conception of oneself. The book is about baseball as The Old Man and the Sea is about a fishing jaunt.
Still, with its corny dugout dialect, its stick-figure femmes fatales, its reliance on the ups and downs of a division rivalry to drum up drama — with all its clunky narrative machinery — one must ask: is it essential Malamud?
Here the reviewer takes a deep breath, lowers his chin to his chest, exhales slowly through his nostrils, and admits that no, The Natural is not essential Malamud.
But, he says, rising from his chair, it is essentially Malamudian!
The Malamudian narrative takes suffering as its premise and the continuation of suffering as its plot. From story to story the sufferer’s identity varies, but within a fixed range. Most are men; almost all are Jewish. They hail from New York, usually Brooklyn. (It’s amusing to note how quickly Malamud moves Hobbs from the West Coast to New York City.) They are toilers — grocers, truck drivers, self-doubting graduate students, peddlers, tinkerers, the sore-backed, the bad-kneed, the sullen, mouths filled with toothache, hearts filled with woe. Poverty is a calamity away; calamity is on the next page.
“Manischevitz, a tailor, in his fifty-first year suffered many reverses and indignities,” begins “Angel Levine,” first published in Commentary in 1955:
Previously a man of comfortable means, he overnight lost all he had, when his establishment caught fire, after a metal container of cleaning fluid exploded, and burned to the ground. Although Manischevitz was insured against fire, damage suits by two customers who had been hurt in the flames deprived him of every penny he had saved. At almost the same time, his son, of much promise, was killed in the war […]. Thereafter Manischevitz was victimized by excruciating backaches and found himself unable to work even as a presser — the only kind of work available to him — for more than an hour or two daily, because beyond that the pain from standing was maddening. His Fanny, a good wife and mother, who had taken in washing and sewing, began before his eyes to waste away. Suffering shortness of breath, she at last became seriously ill and took to her bed. The doctor, a former customer of Manischevitz, who out of pity treated them, at first had difficulty diagnosing her ailment, but later put it down as hardening of the arteries at an advanced stage. He took Manischevitz aside, prescribed complete rest for her, and in whispers gave him to know there was little hope.
The situation is not much better for Morris Bober, powerless hero of Malamud’s second novel, The Assistant (1957), who is trying — failing — to keep his grocery store solvent:
He recalled the bad times he had lived through, but now times were worse than in the past; now they were impossible. His store was always a marginal one, up today, down tomorrow — as the wind blew. Overnight business could go down enough to hurt; yet as a rule it slowly recovered — sometimes it seemed to take forever — went up, not high enough to be really up, only not down. When he had first bought the grocery it was all right for the neighborhood; it had got worse as the neighborhood had. Yet even a year ago, staying open seven days a week, sixteen hours a day, he could still eke out a living. What kind of living? — a living; you lived. Now, though he toiled the same hard hours, he was close to bankruptcy, his patience torn. In the past when bad times came he had somehow lived through them, and when good times returned, they more or less returned to him. But now […] all times were bad.
“Vey iz mir,” thinks Yakov Bok at the beginning of The Fixer (1966), “something bad has happened.” Indeed: a Christian child was murdered in a Russian town, and the citizens believe he was “bled to death for religious purposes so that the Jews could collect his blood […] for the making of Passover matzos.” It isn’t long before Yakov is accused of the murder, and placed in jail.
When he was locked in the cell again there were three filthy straw pallets on the floor. One was his — what a misery that he could think of it as his […]. “What will happen to me now?” he asked himself. And if it happens bad who will ever know? I might as well be dead. […] What had he done to deserve this terrible incarceration, no end in sight? Hadn’t he had more than his share of misery in a less than just world? […] True, the world was the kind of world it was. The rain put out fires and created floods. […] He knew there was something from the outside, a quality of fate that had stalked him all his life and threatened, if he wasn’t careful, his early extinction.
Hope, in the Malamudiverse, is hopeless.
The fates of Manischevitz and Bober and Bok, of Dubin and Dworkin, of Fidelman and Finkle, and dozens of others, are prefigured in The Natural. An outfielder loses a fly ball in the lights: it lands upon an unfavorable portion of his head, paralyzing him from the waist down. A third baseman slips on a bat and breaks his spine in two places. (“We sure been enjoying an unlucky season,” the team trainer says.) Roy Hobbs isn’t exempt. After a measure of batting success, he becomes impotent at the plate:
The next day, against the Braves, Roy got exactly no hits. […] Against the Dodgers in Brooklyn on Tuesday he went hitless once more and they lost. Since he had never before gone without a hit more than six times in a row there was talk now of a slump. That made him uneasy […]. [His teammates] were not ashamed to blame it all on Roy. […] Some of [the fans] agreed it was Roy’s fault, […] others, including a group of sportswriters, claimed the big boy had all the while been living on borrowed time, a large bag of wind burst by the law of averages. […] Every taunt and barb hit its mark. [Roy] changed color and muttered at his tormentors. […] A vile powerlessness seized him. […] An oppressive sadness weighed like a live pain on his heart. Gasping for air, he stood at the open window and looked down at the dreary city till his legs and arms were drugged with heaviness. He shut the hall door and flopped into bed. In the dark he was lost in an overwhelming weakness … I am finished, he muttered.
The rain it raineth every day-game.
Nevertheless, Hobbs’s failure isn’t so immediately felt as that of Malamud’s later characters. Although the expectations of an entire city are on Hobbs’s shoulders, one experiences more sharply the horror of Morris Bober’s grocery store shutting down. Maybe this is because Malamud deals primarily with an individual brand of torment, a single serpent in a single chest. (“Why not leave their private sorrows to people?” Nabokov writes in Pnin. “Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?”) Scope, for Malamud, might be gratuitous; by widening his lens, the emotional impact isn’t evenly spread, merely diffused. Or maybe the deficiency does owe to the subject matter, after all — baseball is a game. Life extends beyond it. Its consequences are confined to the field. Whereas there’s something more vital in Bober’s store (and Fidelman’s studies, and Finkle’s loneliness …), and its cessation represents a more complete, more harrowing end.
“Am I a man in a horse or a horse that talks like a man? […] If the first, then Jonah had it better in the whale — more room all around. Also he knew who he was and how he had got there. About myself I have to make guesses” (“Talking Horse”). “I hear something, whatever do I hear? Zora blew her nose and listened to her ear” (“Zora’s Noise”). “The grocer sighed and waited. Waiting he thought he did poorly. When times were bad time was bad. It died as he waited, stinking in his nose” (The Assistant). “‘You wouldn’t believe me how much cards I got in my office,’ Salzman replied. ‘The drawers are already filled to the top, so I keep them now in a barrel, but is every girl good for a new rabbi?’” (“The Magic Barrel”).
More than he’s known for any individual novel or story, Malamud is renowned for his linguistic style: a combination of American colloquialisms and Yiddish grammar that play together in duet, all sousaphone and cello, brass and string, honk and hum.
“It was as if Malamud were at work in a secret laboratory of language,” Cynthia Ozick wrote in the Times, “smelting a new poetics that infused the inflections of one tongue into the music of another.” The critic Claudia Roth Pierpont has noted that “Malamud made new art out of the Yiddish syntax […]. It was a kind of speech […] that had appeared of no use to any serious writer before.” Philip Roth has described the language as the resurrection of “a heap of broken verbal bones.” Jonathan Rosen, in his introduction to a recent edition of The Assistant, said their “tenseless broken English [is] the unwitting wealth of Malamud’s characters.” Wealth that can’t be spent — for his characters, Malamud’s language makes suffering no more bearable. For the reader, though, the music grants access to an otherwise prohibiting world.
In The Natural, Malamud was still tinkering with the instrumentation. Especially in its early pages, there is too much American horn, manifested in baseball jargon:
The ball fell between them, good for a double, and scoring two of the Phils. […] Luckily the next Phil smothered the fire by rolling to first, which kept the score at 2-1. When Bump returned to the dugout Pop cursed him from the cradle to the grave and for once Bump had no sassy answers. When it came his time to go out on deck, Pop snarled for him to stay where he was. Flores found a ripe one and landed on first but Pop stuck to his guns and looked down the line past Bump. His eye lit on Roy at the far end of the bench, and he called his name to go out there and hit.
The characters, too, speak in brassy lingo:
Sam whacked the leather with his fist. “Come on, kiddo, wham it down his whammy.”
The Whammer out of the corner of his mouth told the drunk to keep his mouth shut.
“Burn it across his button.”
“Close your trap,” Mercy said.
“Cut his throat with it.”
“He looks wild to me.” Max moved in.
“Your knees are knockin’,” Sam tittered.
“Mind your business, rednose,” Max said.
“You better watch your talk, mister,” Roy called to Mercy.
“Pitch it, greenhorn,” warned the Whammer.
The clichés are unmitigated, and thereby unowned — Malamud hasn’t made them his. The dialect seems more like imitation than expression. For a certain type of Malamud enthusiast, it’s a bit embarrassing to come across these passages; the experience is less akin to reading prose than ogling nude photographs of the author: here he stands, malnourished and bespectacled, wrong, and yet, detecting the viewer’s presence, he works up an unconvincing expression of confidence. He sticks out his chin. Still his lip quivers.
As the novel progresses, though, so too does Malamud’s voice. Not surprisingly, the language is at its most Malamudian when things for Roy Hobbs are going poorly. In the midst of his batting slump, Roy
spent hours fretting whether to ask for help or wait it out. Some day the slump was bound to go, but when? Not that he was ashamed to ask for help but once you had come this far you felt you had learned the game and could afford to give out with the advice instead of being forced to ask for it. He was, as they say, established and it was like breaking up with the establishment to go around panhandling an earful. Like making a new beginning and he was sick up to here of new beginnings.
By no means have the Americanisms been renounced — “wait it out,” “bound to go,” “once you had come this far,” “sick up to here” — but they’ve become subsumed in a different diction, and so feel fresh, even foreign. Words here serve a tuneful, rather than informative or grammatical purpose (“give out with the advice”). And there are other hallmarks of Malamud’s style: the faux-cliché (“panhandling an earful”); the rabbinical rhetorical (“but when?”).
A significant part of The Natural’s drama might be detected outside the book, within the author, as he gropes to reconcile the language of baseball with a language that more naturally houses the sorrow that is Malamud’s unremitting theme.
Hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago is a representational painting of a farmhouse (Farm near Duivendrecht) from early in Piet Mondrian’s career. Beside the farmhouse is a canal. In the canal is a reflection of the farmhouse, but in this reflection the structure loses its form; the farmhouse reappears as a congregation of geometric shapes, mostly rectangles. One can see, or sense, in these shapes a sort of rough draft of the abstract compositions that would later occupy Mondrian and comprise his career. Reading The Natural provides a similar thrill — more forensic than literary, but a thrill nonetheless. Even beyond the characters’ sufferings, beyond the jazzy klezmer of language, there are hints of what’s to come. The white dress worn by Hobbs’s rejected love interest appears a few years later, slightly used, on the shoulders of the matchmaker’s devilish daughter in “The Magic Barrel.” It’s implied at several points that Hobbs is Jewish: he had fasted in his childhood; he quotes from the Book of Isaiah; illness strikes him after a meal of milk, meat, and shellfish. (“All men are Jews,” Malamud once said.)
That the film adaptation has thoroughly supplanted the book in cultural memory is a most excellent Malamudian irony. It transforms the novel into one of Malamud’s characters — misinterpreted, misused, disparaged, ignored, dismissed. Has the book suffered? To say so would be extreme — The Natural has, after all, had its copyright renewed, and seems each decade to be revived in a new edition. Undeniably, it is on the final roster. Perhaps it might be considered an ignored veteran presence: simply it waits, and waits, to be called into play from where it warms the bench.
 In a separate, rather wizardly essay, Cohen discusses Malamud’s least discussed works: his unpublished novels.