Hunger Games

IN 2014, the novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick reviewed the collected fiction of Bernard Malamud for the New York Times. Ozick adores her slightly older contemporary for his bruised moral seriousness. The essay contains just one asterisk: “The reviewer has not read and is not likely ever to read ‘The Natural,’ a baseball novel said to incorporate a mythical theme. Myth may be myth, but baseball is still baseball, so never mind.”

I can sympathize with Ozick’s reservations to a degree. When I take the Bull Durham approach to baseball—theorizing to myself late at night in a gorgeous Southern accent—I start to think there’s a lot in it I might have a sensual affinity for: it’s a sport in which time meanders, heroes face off, a generous coolness prevails. Nonetheless, the game doesn’t meaningfully connect, which is just the opposite of what I feel about The Natural. I know Malamud has written better novels, that The Assistant has immaculate form, that The Fixer is a richer depiction of suffering. If for me Malamud’s baseball book wins out, at the end of the day it’s a gut judgment, which is only fitting since what the gut wants is of great concern in The Natural.

Malamud’s first published novel, which is coming up on its seventieth anniversary this year, follows from defeat to defeat an American baseball player named Roy Hobbs, who is always obscenely hungry. The man’s hunger, like a circus that never moves on to the next town, growls and growls until one day it folds. We encounter Roy in two moments of his life: as a nineteen-year-old up-and-comer, and as a fallen thirty-four-year-old swinging for redemption. There is no in-between. The first thirty pages, titled “Pre-game,” have him meeting the enigmatic Harriet Bird on a train to Chicago, where he’s due for a tryout with the Cubs. She is to be the first of several women whom Roy concerns and bores with his fixation on one day becoming “the best there ever was in the game.” In a soapy bit of foreshadowing, Roy overhears passengers discussing a mysterious young lady who’s been shooting star athletes with a gun. The sports reporter Max Mercy is onboard, as well as a champion hitter they all call “the Whammer.” When the conductor lets the riders off at a carnival for an hour, Roy’s manager bets that Roy, the newcomer nobody’s heard of yet, can strike out the Whammer in three balls, which he does in a blaze of glory (“The third ball slithered at the batter like a meteor, the flame swallowing itself”). It all seems like a grossly symbolic dream when a few pages later, in Chicago, Harriet invites Roy to her hotel room and shoots him in his Achilles’ heel, his stomach.

The novel picks up again with Roy returning from the game after a long absence, having just been scouted for the fictional New York Knights, a bunch of superstitious players down on their luck. Methods for achieving their longed-for win include hypnotism, stroking a rabbit’s foot, and doing backflips on the field; fans return this nervous energy by crowing like roosters and banging on a gong. Roy’s highs are astronomical, and he becomes a sensation with the press as he leads his team into the playoffs, but he never completely subdues “Dame Fortune” (he has terrible trouble with real women, too). His return to form is marred by losing streaks, and at the crucial moment he eats a meal so epic it rips his stomach and lands him in the hospital with a doctor’s order to give up baseball for good.

A self-conscious reader might have reason to be wary of this novel. The Natural is a story of failing at one’s vocation and is itself a bit of a failure. In this respect it’s nothing like the 1984 film adaptation, which more than satisfies my appetite for mythic victory but leaves no trace that its origin text was written between two failed novels, when Malamud was in his mid-thirties and desperate to publish after years of professing literary ambitions. Shortly before The Natural was published, Malamud took his only copy of his first, autobiographical novel The Light Sleeper into his backyard in Oregon, where he was teaching at the time, and burned it as his four-year-old son Paul looked on beside him.

The Natural, then, is Malamud’s second effort at a novel, and it has some sophomoric tendencies, not all bad. Look at it head-on and it’s an Odyssean tale whose hero rings the bases but never truly gets “home.” Squint and it’s about a thirty-four-year-old man who chugs gallons of milk and does magic tricks to impress women, and goes around telling people he’s the best there ever was with not a jot of irony. The villain—an old money-grubbing man called “the Judge” who owns a chunk of the team and won’t give Roy a fair contract—literally sits in darkness whenever Roy visits his office. He’s got a neat explanation for the darkness too: as a child he was so afraid of the dark he felt as if he were drowning. “You will observe,” says the Judge to Roy, “that I have disciplined myself so thoroughly against that fear, that I much prefer a dark to a lit room, and water is my favorite beverage.” The flatness of Malamud’s characters is a kind of amusing card trick. It’s a parade of setups with no punch line. Comedy at the pitch of anticipation that stretches the reader’s credulity to the point of bursting.

The biggest joke of The Natural is that Roy isn’t one at all. From the outset we know he’s just a man working with what he’s got. The shine on him is only the diligent sweat of the writer making his careful embellishments and deletions, and Malamud doesn’t let you forget it. The atmosphere is so thick with literary devices you almost can’t believe Roy hasn’t guessed what’s going on: when he mistakenly catches an escaped canary in his mitt during a game and drops the bloody remains into the trash I want to shout from the stands, “You’re in a novel, you stupid idiot!” If I had a gong I’d bang it, heart in throat. That’s how I know it’s baseball, but it isn’t baseball.

Hannah Gold is a freelance critic and fiction writer based in New York City.