Generally regarded as perhaps the greatest baseball novel of all time, The Natural is not without its flaws.
First and foremost among those flaws is our protagonist, Roy Hobbs, and his unfortunate lack of likable traits. Roy is stubborn, shallow, and selfish; everyone and everything in his life seems to only serve the purpose of appeasing his voracious appetite.
For what does he hunger? For greatness, on the surface. To be the best at what he does. To fulfill his potential. To have it all. Certainly fine and noble goals for a fine and noble hero, but Roy Hobbs, as written, isn't that fine and noble hero. Maybe Robert Redford's sly grin brings about the best in Roy on the silver screen, but on the pages we only see him consistently act like a fool unworthy of our compassion.
I struggled at times to get behind the New York Knights' 34 year old rookie, the mysterious stranger who bursts onto the scene out of nowhere to become the league's best player.
The readers are privy to exposition unknown to anyone else but Roy and we are supposed to feel sorry for him as a victim of unfortunate circumstances, his career having been postponed by a tragic event detailed in the book's introductory chapter. But to truly join Roy's team, we need to see a little bit of good from him to counter the crummy things he does, the poor way he treats people, and the bitter loner attitude he portrays to the world. I often found myself frustrated with Roy when I felt I should feel sorry for him. We as readers want a hero who redeems himself, a man who overcomes his troubles to retain his humanity. Throughout the entire book (and even before the early incident that nearly derails Roy's career), we are forced to settle for an arrogant protagonist who never quite learns to ease off his cockiness.
Despite these character issues, Malamud's poetic language and magical realism redeems the book and paints a vivid backdrop for Roy's saga. Pitchers and batters huff and puff like steam engines while the Knights run the basepaths like Mississippi steamboats. The team's reclusive owner sits in the darkness, the ash at the end of his cigar the only thing lighting the room. These images come alive in the reader's mind, a testament to the author's ability.
Roy's legendary bat Wonderboy exists as an entity of its own, its magic clearly understood by the characters but never fully acknowledged. It's a tremendous conceit and goes well with a number of story elements seemingly beyond the realm of reality yet accepted by the story's universe as 'just there.'
There's a lot of great stuff about heroes, manhood, retribution and fulfilling one's destiny in The Natural, and it's a pleasant, vibrant read for most of its 215 pages. The one thing that keeps it from being truly great is Roy Hobbs, the hero we wish we could have liked just a little bit more.
I managed to snag the copy of this book for $1.50 at the Montgomery Country Friends of the Library Bookstore in Rockville, MD. I also came away with a copies of Candide, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Stranger. The entire purchase cost me $5. I'd recommend if you're out book hunting to peruse your local used bookstore before ordering off of Amazon or trudging into a dying supergiant like Barnes & Noble. You never know what you might just happen upon at a small bookstore and there's something special about getting your hands on something that's been shared throughout its shelf life.