The Natural by Bernard Malamud is a book about hubris, appetite, exceptionalism, and baseball–it doesn’t take a Hardy Brother, or even a close reading to implicate America in the themes and going ons of this novel. And because America has an unbridled appetite, an unchecked hubris, and to a degree because America is exceptional, The Natural is remembered not as it is, a cautionary tale about strength, legacy, and ego, but rather it is remembered as Robert Redford mashing a tater off the lights and riding into the sunset a champion. It is obnoxiously appropriate that we would ignore the somber arc of the novel and celebrate instead the celluloid slugger with the extra terrestrial baseball bat and perfectly hewn jawline. Roy Hobbs as he exists on the page was too ideal an American for us to let him fall from the sky. We could not let his lesson be cautionary–it must be inspirational, we said. It must encourage unfettered confidence and the reckless pursuit of glory and greatness. His story must sell tickets and end happily. And so now it does.
America can embrace fallen and flawed heroes. We can overlook Bill Clinton the sex criminal, Charles Lindbergh the infant-son killing eugenicist, and Tom Osborne the republican. We can forgive Mike Vick the dog fighter and John Lennon the wife beater, but we are powerless to forget failure. This nation could not overlook Roy Hobbs the game losing point shaver. Punching out to lose then pennant was too tall a foul up to forgive or forget. A season ending strikeout proved to be one of the few unforgivable transgressions to the collective American consciousness–so we rewrote it. We said to hell with candle wax and bound Roy Hobbs’ wings with titanium alloy and let him fly into the sun and World Series.
Hobbs as a portrait of our American selfs was too flattering to leave in the hands of Bernard Malamud. And while this man’s version of the story still exists, it exists in a book, where it may as well be on the moon. So Americans instead embrace the rewrite, assuring ourselves we will win and be happy and have sex with Glen Close–we will achieve the American Dream so to speak.
There is a lot more to this book than its themes. Roy has a problem with women which I cannot presume to unpack. Early on, he gets shot in the gut like a werewolf. The man behind the gun is a woman and she is sexy and dressed immodestly and on a mission to kill all the best athletes in the world. She surely represents something greater than herself, but her place in the American allegory eludes me. If you put a gun to my head and made me guess I’d say she was Walter Cronkite saying the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. But I won’t say that because it adds nothing to anyones understanding of anything.
In The Natural, Roy Hobbs
a) Orders 6 hamburgers at one time
b) Bangs a grandma
c) Gets shot in the gut like a werewolf
d) Hits a homerun off the lights to clinch the pennant