In 2005, I was wrapping up a trip to Boston and went to a bookstore to find something to read on the plane ride home. I left with The Natural by Bernard Malamud, the novel on which the Robert Redford movie is based, for mostly superficial reasons: it was slim, it had a lovely cover—red thread unspooling from an in-flight ball to spell the title in swooping script—and it allowed me to check off another notable book from my too-long list of haven’t-reads. I finished the book before I got home, but it stayed with me for much longer, not only for its many pleasures but also because of something I saw as a problem: the way it represented women. And that problem is precisely why this ended up being one of the most fortuitous decisions of my reading life.
The Natural borrows from Arthurian legend as well as two mythologies: classic Greek and modern American. The reader can hear echoes from Agamemnon in the cupped flame held by the novel’s protagonist, Roy Hobbs, in the opening sequence, and from Perceval’s hunt for the Holy Grail in Hobbs’ pursuit of the pennant. Pitches might be “dripping lard,” but the images drip symbolism. Among the pages, you’ll find golden baseballs, silver bullets, and a baseball bat: the aptly named “Wonderboy,” hewed from the pure white wood of a tree “split by lightning.” And the novel is peopled with characters who are even more portentous: Harriet and her hatbox, Gus and his glass eye.
But in many ways, Hobbs is a quintessentially American construct, a man of humble beginnings with a preternatural talent for the national pastime. When that talent is discovered by chance by a weary scout, they both look forward to the inevitable climb up the ladder of success, which will lead straight to all the spoils of the American dream. Malamud is quick to remind us of the illusory quality of this dream—before either man makes it to his ultimate destination, one is dead and the other gravely wounded by a femme fatale. After many years in the proverbial wilderness, Hobbs gets the rarest of gifts—a second chance to make good—which he fully expects to do. “I came for more than the ride,” he says. “And I will leave my mark around here.” But despite all of his grand pronouncements, his second chance is botched even more miserably than the first, ruined by his own worst instincts. Some have called the ending cynical, including the filmmakers who felt inclined to edit it, but that message—even a second chance is no guarantee of a happy ending—struck me as inherently true.
The book provides pleasures for baseball fans, but for me, it was my outsider status as a woman with limited knowledge of the sport that made the book especially enjoyable. While Malamud’s later work may be more notable for its prose, I found poetry in the way the book co-opted the language of baseball and boys’ sports novels and then subverted it with its gritty themes. The book is chockablock with popped pills, burned buttons, whizzers, and whammers. Even the lists are lovely. On his day of honor, Roy Hobbs collects “two television sets, a baby tractor, five hundred feet of pink plastic garden hose, a nanny goat, a lifetime pass to the Paramount, one dozen hand-painted traveling neckties offering different views of the Grand Canyon, six aluminum traveling cases, and a credit for seventy-five taxi rides in Philadelphia.” All of this, along with the strange rituals and strong passions of the players and fans, gave me the feeling of having stumbled my way into a secret club.
I did, however, have a beef with the portrayal of the female characters. There are three significant women in the novel, and, like others before me, I found them to be one-dimensional. Of them, one is psychotic, one is a she-devil, and one is an angel (or the Lady of the Lake, or Aphrodite, or the good wife and mother, depending on which myth you choose to draw your parallel). Roy is wonderfully complex, and it is a shame that his female counterparts can’t be as well.
But it was exactly that problem that produced the seeds of my own novel about a teenage girl in the 1950s who leaves her old life behind to become one of America’s most infamous female wrestlers. In The Sweetheart, the women are not cheering from the sidelines but instead are in the center of a wrestling ring. While they perform as one-dimensional personae in front of an audience—one is a face, the other a heel—they are infinitely more complicated in their real lives. And they might never have come into existence if it weren’t for the female characters in The Natural. Sometimes the best gift a novel can give you is its flaws.