Book Review: The Natural

The Natural
by Bernard Malamud

Lately I've been looking for some feel good books and thought that one about baseball would work well. Even though the Detroit Tigers are making baseball insufferable for me I was still into the Big League spirit. Hence, I decided to pick up another classic. The book was pretty good, but there was just one problem: it was NOT a feel good book.
The Natural was made into a movie and though I never saw it, I thought that it seemed like a family-friendly, feel-good flick. After reading the book, however, I figure one of two things is true: the movie is actually dark and not-so-family-friendly or Hollywood managed to yet again suck the genuine soul out of a great story. Once the story started getting heavy, I realized that I started reading the book under false pretenses and was surprised to find the story so grim. The read was most pleasing, nonetheless.

First, this is a great baseball story. If you're a baseball fan, it would behoove you to check this piece of literature out. It certainly has the feel of a classic work of sports fiction and at one point I thought of it as a more adult version of Catcher in the Rye.

The book is short and very, very fun to read (well, except for the tragic/gloomy or tense/awkward moments). It has lots of cool vocabulary. Some of the words I include here, but you can see more at my Twitter timeline at www.twitter.com/evagro. I enjoyed reading some vintage terms like "jawjacking" and "dame". Here's a couple of my favorite baseball terms:
  • pill, pellet, apple: nicknames for a baseball
  • southpaw: a leftie
  • fungo: when a batter throws the ball up himself to hit it
  • bird dogging: to seek out talent, in this book, scouts bird dogging at local sandlots.
  • bingle: base hit
You can tell this book is a renowned sports fiction work. There are unforeseen twists early (well, unforeseen for people that haven't seen the movie). Many parts of the story show the shady side of ball players with their lust for women and moronic practical jokes. The reader also gets a nice serving of typical baseball superstitions, including the famous rabbit's foot.

There's an excellent passage on page 69 about the condition of the New York Knights baseball team when Hobbs shows up to save them. Writing brilliance:

"He [Hobbs] watched them and he felt he had to laugh. They were a nutty bunch to begin with but when they were losing they were impossible. It was like some kind of sickness. They threw to the wrong bases, bumped heads together in the outfield, pass each other on the baselines, sometimes batted out of order, throwing both Pop and the ump into fits, and cussed everybody else for their mistakes."
That paragraph goes longer, but it's so good you'll just have to read the book to enjoy the rest. It's darn entertaining. Throughout the book, Malamud offers vivid descriptions of all the characters in the sport's world: bird doggers, journalists, players, coaches and fans. Not a lot has changed since then.
Just when you think the tragedy is done with, you get a little more to put a damper on things. A lot of the characters are trying work their way through some kind of gloom. One of the best passages involves a big time bookie, Gus. In response to what people gamble on, Gus says:

"On anybody or anything. We bet on strikes, balls, hits, runs, innings, and full games. If a good team plays a lousy team we will bet on the spread of runs. We cover anything anyone wants to bet on. Once in a Series game I bet a hundred grand on three pitched balls."
Hobbs' poison the entire story is women and food. It almost seems that he doesn't want to force women to do anything, but when they refuse him he turns to food. He eats so much that he becomes quit ill. In the end, he is engulfed by them same ego-filled attitude and lifestyle of Bump, the guy he continued to compete with even after Bump dies.

I do not like Roy Hobbs. He seems like a dumb, sexist pig (and I'm no feminist, mind you). At the same time he's a crybaby and a headcase. On the outside he tries to appear strong, but on the inside he has a feeble mind. Plus, I hate it when professional athletes hate the fans when they are so dedicated to their heroes. Barry Bonds hates fans; he stinks. Hobbs hates the fans; he stinks.
Again, great baseball book, but not a pick-me-upper. Recommended for the sports fan. Also, seems like a good book for males in general.

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