Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Book review: "The Natural"

I literally just finished reading “The Natural,” and I wanted to start writing this review right away. I thought it was important to share some immediate impressions right after I put the book down.

And in that spirit, I’ll start with what I’ve read most recently: the ending.

We’ve all seen the classic ending of the Robert Redford movie based on the book, where Redford’s character, Roy Hobbs, smacks a walk-off home run into the lights to win the pennant for the New York Knights. It’s an iconic scene in its own right.

But that sure as hell ain’t how the book ends.

And in reading the last few pages just now, I can’t help but imagine how fantastic the movie would have been with the ending author Bernard Malamud intended. The book concludes with four pages of unrestrained violence, vengeance and greed, some of the most visceral yet simple writing I’ve ever read.

I get it, though. The film “The Natural” was released in 1984. Five of the top 10 grossing films that year were comedies, and the other five were action movies with happy endings. This was the year of “Police Academy,” “Romancing the Stone” and “Footloose,” the year Daniel-San defeated the Cobra Kai and the Ghostbusters fought a giant marshmallow. Malamud’s dark ending would have been misplaced.

But oh, Malamud’s tale would make a perfect 2009 film, wouldn‘t it? One of the most popular films so far this year has been “Watchmen,” a movie in which tens of millions of people die. Dark endings are no problem anymore.

I’m telling you, a movie version of “The Natural” filmed today would be phenomenal. “The Natural” is ripe for a remake.

Enough about the ending. Let’s take a quick look at the book as a whole.

“The Natural,” the story of Roy Hobbs, is divided into two parts: the first (much shorter) section follows a young Hobbs as he’s on his way to his first Major League Baseball tryout. He’s a wiz-kid pitcher and hitter who totes around a homemade bat named “Wonderboy,” and during a train trip he’s challenged by a world-renowned slugger to a single at-bat. Roy strikes the slugger out in three pitches and looks to be on his way to greatness. But he’s sidetracked by a single act of violence and insanity.

The second section flashes forward 16 years. Roy Hobbs is 35 years old and has just signed a contract for peanuts to play for the New York Knights. After he wins over the confidence of his manager, Roy gets put into a game, but not before the manager advises him to “Knock the cover off” the ball:

He couldn’t tell the color of the pitch that came at him. All he could think of was that he was sick to death of waiting, and tongue-out thirsty to begin. The ball was now a dew drop staring him in the eye so he stepped back and swung from the toes.

Wonderboy flashed in the sun. It caught the sphere where it was biggest. A noise like a twenty-one gun salute cracked the sky. There was a straining, ripping sound and a few drops of rain spattered to the ground. The ball screamed toward the pitcher and seemed suddenly to dive down at his feet. He grabbed it to throw to first and realized to his horror that he held only the cover. The rest of it, unraveling cotton thread as it rode, was headed into the outfield.

From then on, Roy takes the league by storm. Of course, he’s confronted by obstacles, including gamblers (common to many baseball novels), slumps and women.

It’s that last one, though, that really causes all his other problems. Roy faces a common dilemma in literature, where he’s forced to choose between “the right woman” and “the wrong woman.”

Of the three baseball novels I’ve reviewed so far (also including “Shoeless Joe” and “The Celebrant”), I will say that “The Natural” is my favorite. Bernard Malamud crafted an impressive piece of literature that just happens to be about baseball. This is one of those books you could read once a year and never tire of it.

Now, the only question is, who will star as Roy Hobbs in the remake?

--Matt Kelsey

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