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Old 07-01-2019, 07:07 AM   #1
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July 2019 Discussion • The Natural by Bernard Malamud



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The Natural, Bernard Malamud's first novel, published in 1952, is also the first—and some would say still the best—novel ever written about baseball. In it Malamud, usually appreciated for his unerring portrayals of postwar Jewish life, took on very different material—the story of a superbly gifted "natural" at play in the fields of the old daylight baseball era—and invested it with the hardscrabble poetry, at once grand and altogether believable, that runs through all his best work. Four decades later, Alfred Kazin's comment still holds true: "Malamud has done something which—now that he has done it!—looks as if we have been waiting for it all our lives. He has really raised the whole passion and craziness and fanaticism of baseball as a popular spectacle to its ordained place in mythology."

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Old 07-15-2019, 07:00 AM   #2
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Batter up!

It's time to discuss The Natural. What did we think of it?

I'll say, briefly, that I thought it was terrific. It succeeded on so many levels, as pure baseball novel, as a look at the immediate postwar zeitgeist, and most importantly as an examination of chances lost, poor choices and redemption missed, and just generally as an account of the sad lives of damaged and unlikable people.

It was not, however, the feel-good story of the movie! What an opportunity missed to say something meaningful.

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Old 07-15-2019, 08:19 AM   #3
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The first thing that crossed my mind at the end was "mighty Casey has struck out"

For me, the book had a strong taste of Gatsby.
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Old 07-15-2019, 08:28 AM   #4
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The first thing that crossed my mind at the end was "mighty Casey has struck out"

For me, the book had a strong taste of Gatsby.
Good call! I was also reminded of the great film, On the Waterfront, which was a few years later. In one of the most famous film lines of all time, Terry Malloy is talking to his brother, Charlie, about the time Charlie told him to take a dive during a prizefight because he and his people had money on Terry's opponent:

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I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am
Roy's a bum and there will be no third act.
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Old 07-15-2019, 10:17 AM   #5
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I was extremely disappointed in The Natural, mostly because of the ending. I read the book and saw the movie long ago, but the details of both had become quite hazy over time, and I'd forgotten how different they were; I prefer the story told in the movie.

Issybird mentioned On the Waterfront; the beauty of that film is that Terry gets to redeem himself. He's been a bum who sold out, but he gets his chance to be a hero. By contrast, Malamud first punishes his protagonist for little more than youthful hubris by destroying his dreams and nearly killing him. Then, when Roy has managed to get another chance, he crushes him again--even after Roy has had his epiphany. Where's the hope? Where's even a glimmer of a reason to try to be better?

I was thinking of The Man With the Golden Arm, another book-to-film with an altered ending (I've only seen the movie).
Spoiler:
In the film, Frankie finally has some hope; in the book, Frankie commits suicide. This is why I keep avoiding reading the book; I don't want to suffer with Frankie all the way through, only to reach that kind of awful ending.

The ending of The Natural was a punch to the gut. I don't need or want a totally sappy, hearts-and-flowers ending when I read a novel, but I don't want to be left with hopelessness, even when the protagonist is flawed.
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Old 07-15-2019, 10:39 AM   #6
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I was extremely disappointed in The Natural, mostly because of the ending. I read the book and saw the movie long ago, but the details of both had become quite hazy over time, and I'd forgotten how different they were; I prefer the story told in the movie.

Issybird mentioned On the Waterfront; the beauty of that film is that Terry gets to redeem himself. He's been a bum who sold out, but he gets his chance to be a hero. By contrast, Malamud first punishes his protagonist for little more than youthful hubris by destroying his dreams and nearly killing him. Then, when Roy has managed to get another chance, he crushes him again--even after Roy has had his epiphany. Where's the hope? Where's even a glimmer of a reason to try to be better?
Roy had his second chance and blew it, and affirmed his poor choices at more than one stage.

Iris could have redeemed him after he met (and impregnated) her, but he rejected her in favor of Memo, and that after Memo had consistently revealed her true nature to him and Pop also had warned him. Moreover, in his final chance, he continued to hit those fouls at the dwarf instead of knocking one out of the park and it was only when the last one misfired and he knocked out Iris instead, that he had his ephiphany. By then, it was too late - but he'd had his chance.

I admit, I did laugh at Roy's thinking, "Christ, another one," when Iris stood up that last time. Roy is not a nice person, but he's certainly been damaged, and going back before he was gut-shot.
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Old 07-15-2019, 10:54 AM   #7
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Roy had his second chance and blew it, and affirmed his poor choices at more than one stage.

Iris could have redeemed him after he met (and impregnated) her, but he rejected her in favor of Memo, and that after Memo had consistently revealed her true nature to him and Pop also had warned him. Moreover, in his final chance, he continued to hit those fouls at the dwarf instead of knocking one out of the park and it was only when the last one misfired and he knocked out Iris instead, that he had his ephiphany. By then, it was too late - but he'd had his chance.

I admit, I did laugh at Roy's thinking, "Christ, another one," when Iris stood up that last time. Roy is not a nice person, but he's certainly been damaged, and going back before he was gut-shot.
Who says people should get only one chance at redemption? Roy had been stomped on by fate so many times, still was a fundamentally decent guy, and was destroyed after he tried belatedly to do the right thing. That's a pretty horrible message.

I just realized that Bump was destroyed when he tried to be a good player. Parallel?
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Old 07-15-2019, 12:22 PM   #8
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Who says people should get only one chance at redemption? Roy had been stomped on by fate so many times, still was a fundamentally decent guy, and was destroyed after he tried belatedly to do the right thing. That's a pretty horrible message.
Was he a fundamentally decent guy, though? He didn't like the fans, he didn't like the players, he treated Iris badly. I'm not saying a series of unfortunate events didn't go to making him distrustful, but Iris explicitly managed to make her own suffering redemptive. Roy should have learned something during his lean years, too.

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I just realized that Bump was destroyed when he tried to be a good player. Parallel?
Maybe it was destiny; he bumped into the wall. Clearly names are signifiers in Malamud's world.
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Old 07-15-2019, 02:04 PM   #9
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Was he a fundamentally decent guy, though? He didn't like the fans, he didn't like the players, he treated Iris badly. I'm not saying a series of unfortunate events didn't go to making him distrustful, but Iris explicitly managed to make her own suffering redemptive. Roy should have learned something during his lean years, too.
I think he was decent but damaged. He was angry and blinded by lust, but he cared about Pop; he cared about the little boy in the hospital. And when he found out about Iris's pregnancy, he cared enough to try to salvage his integrity.

What should Roy have learned from being shot, except maybe that the universe had dumped on him once again? All he was when he was shot was ambitious and cocky, like any kid; it seems understandable that when he got another chance to fulfill his dream after losing so many years, he was impatient, focused, and greedy. The people around him were a lot worse than he was, with less reason. Yet Roy is the scapegoat.
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Old 07-15-2019, 03:01 PM   #10
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He also cared about the scout in the first part of the book. I agree with Catlady. I would have preferred the happier ending. I didn’t like the hopelessness. I also think that Roy was decent but damaged. It’s the feeling that he had some decency and the potential to make the right decisions that makes the reader so disappointed when he can’t overcome his flaws.
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Old 07-15-2019, 03:07 PM   #11
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What should Roy have learned from being shot, except maybe that the universe had dumped on him once again?
I'm not saying Roy should have learned anything from being shot other than sheer randomness, as you say. However, I think 15 years as a carnie, a roustabout, playing semi-pro ball and all the rest of it, should have taught him a lot about people and their motivations. "Blinded by lust" isn't a good excuse, ever.

And timing is everything. He had his chances in that last game, didn't take them, and by the time he changed his mind it was too late. So it goes; everyone can look back on opportunities lost through poor choices. Why should his redemptive arc have been completed? What's the more realistic outcome? I vastly preferred this one, because it spoke as the truth to me.
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Old 07-15-2019, 03:15 PM   #12
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He also cared about the scout in the first part of the book. I agree with Catlady. I would have preferred the happier ending. I didn’t like the hopelessness. I also think that Roy was decent but damaged. It’s the feeling that he had some decency and the potential to make the right decisions that makes the reader so disappointed when he can’t overcome his flaws.
For me, that was the strength of the ending. I'd have been disappointed if he'd scored the winning run. But again, with Malamud, the name is destiny; once Youngberry came in to replace Vogelman, the ending was obvious. Youth would beat out age.

And what's with Vogelman? I'm still thinking about names. Harriet Bird shot Roy; did Roy exorcise that when he caught and killed the canary? Was that why he was able to beat the Birdman?
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Old 07-15-2019, 03:27 PM   #13
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I'm not saying Roy should have learned anything from being shot other than sheer randomness, as you say. However, I think 15 years as a carnie, a roustabout, playing semi-pro ball and all the rest of it, should have taught him a lot about people and their motivations. "Blinded by lust" isn't a good excuse, ever.

And timing is everything. He had his chances in that last game, didn't take them, and by the time he changed his mind it was too late. So it goes; everyone can look back on opportunities lost through poor choices. Why should his redemptive arc have been completed? What's the more realistic outcome? I vastly preferred this one, because it spoke as the truth to me.
It may be truth, but this is fiction, and Malamud made the decision to give this story a lousy ending. He chose to crush Roy. It wasn't enough that he wouldn't be able to play baseball anymore; no, let's make it even worse. Let's humiliate him, wipe out his records, make people shun him. Was his crime so great, so unforgivable? Malumud couldn't give him the game-winning hit, couldn't let him triumph over the gamblers at least, couldn't let him have Iris? Malamud chose to take this character with all his hopes and dreams and destroy him totally. Why? What message does that send? Why did Malamud want to use baseball, a game of optimism and there's-always-tomorrow and wait-till-next-year to be so unbearably pessimistic?
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Old 07-15-2019, 04:19 PM   #14
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For me, that was the strength of the ending. I'd have been disappointed if he'd scored the winning run. But again, with Malamud, the name is destiny; once Youngberry came in to replace Vogelman, the ending was obvious. Youth would beat out age.

And what's with Vogelman? I'm still thinking about names. Harriet Bird shot Roy; did Roy exorcise that when he caught and killed the canary? Was that why he was able to beat the Birdman?
I just like happier endings better. However, given the direction that he chose to take with Roy’s character, I do think that the ending was very well done. I thought the beginning was great, it started to sag in the middle, and the ending redeemed the book for me. It’s just not the ending I would have preferred for enjoyability, but I can appreciate the writing. If I were a teacher, then I think it would be a fun book to discuss with students.

The names were definitely significant. Since my library only had audio available, I can’t remember many of the smaller characters. Pop was a father figure and that’s basically his final destiny because they don’t win the pennant allowing him greater glory as a coach or redemption for his slump in his player years.
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Old 07-15-2019, 05:34 PM   #15
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I don’t think Roy was a bad person. He did care about a number of people. But every card was stacked against him, and he just didn’t have any insight at all into what drove him. I didn’t see his drive as lust - I thought he was trying to fill a deep terrifying personal emptiness. And in his nightmares, he’s shown desperately trying to escape fate.

Malamud paints such a hopeless, treacherous, bleak world. The phrase about most people ‘living lives of quiet desperation’ kept playing in my head as I read it.

That said, I thought it was a very well written, powerful book. The language was so spare, yet the portraits were very well done. It did remind me a bit of The Grapes of Wrath. It was the author’s first book - I wonder if he was influenced by it at all.

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