The Natural by Bernard Malamud

The NaturalThe Natural by Bernard Malamud
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[Audio Version]
It was in 1984 that Robert Redford starred in the movie adaptation of Bernard Malamud's The Natural. In the film version Redford played the main character, Roy Hobbs, as a wild-eyed, mildly arrogant innocent, not unlike Johnny Hooker from The Sting. The result was a pleasant and upbeat film with a tried and true Hollywood happy ending. There was barely a hint of the calculating evil that inhabited the darkness the shadows around Hobbs. Yes, there was some darkness, a few shady characters, but nothing that the movie Roy Hobbs couldn't rise above.

I had heard, or perhaps read, that the book was considerably darker than the film. While I enjoyed the Redford interpretation I was looking forward to something a little meatier than the sugar-coated movie treatment.

I have no rule about reading the book before seeing the movie. Movies don't wreck the book for me. Nor do I don't shy away from downbeat novels.

The Natural came with a reputation as being one of the better baseball stories ever written. However, even though I was a captive listener as I drove in rush-hour traffic twice a day, I don't think that I could have gotten through the 6-disk set without that image of Robert Redford’s Hobbs in the back of mind. It gave me hope that the thick as a brick novel-version of Roy Hobbs might find some sort of redemption before it was all over.

From the beginning, Roy Hobbs comes across as a self-centered, borderline narcissist. His only virtues are his conceit, his arrogance and his ability to throw a baseball. Hobbs is a completely humorless figure oblivious to the needs or insidious designs of those around him. The problem is that Hobbs is so unlikeable that whether people are intent upon doing him harm, or in some cases good, it is impossible to care. Whenever it appears that Hobbs might actually take a turn towards likability, it is his own boorishness that ultimately undermines any progress. He never shows any serious growth or maturation. Instead he wallows in self pity, bemoaning his run of bad luck, which is considerable, but mostly of his own doing.

The Natural is not the only book to feature an unlikeable jerk as its main protagonist, but without much of a hook beyond the main character being a gifted underachiever, there is little about Hobbs that is engaging or even interesting. It's hard to feel for a self-centered character who has no understanding of consequences and never accepts responsibility for his actions, whether it's engaging in a one-night stand that almost cost him his life, fathering a child that he'd rather not acknowledge or causing the death of the scout who signed him. Nevertheless, perhaps because of the memory of that Redford movie, I persevered with hope that Hobbs might turn a corner might towards self-redemption. No such luck. The closest that Hobbs ever comes to introspection is his regret about being caught fixing a game. It ends up costing the backstabbing Roy whatever remained of his career. By the time a former fan, a young boy, ask Hobbs, “Why did you do it?” I had ceased to care.

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