Sunday, June 15, 2008

Except the drum is a chick

Seeing as it was the baseball season once again, and the grass was green, the sun was shining high, and the bats were connecting, I decided to pick up two classic baseball novels, Mark Harris' Bang the Drum Slowly and Bernard Malamud's The Natural, both the inspirations for major motion pictures.

BtDS started out on my nerves, using "would of" instead of "would've" and the like, but as soon as I got used to the colloquial style and heavy use of 1950s vernacular, I discovered a very touching story, deeply dark at times, and all mixed in with a competently handled baseball theme. BtDS works well both as a baseball book and a character story. It is by no means an uplifting novel, but I appreciated it as an honest portrait of life. I don't have much else to add, except to say that I highly recommend.



The Natural, on the other hand, was almost the complete opposite, attempting to be everything that BtDS found so easy, but falling short. To begin with, The Natural is a very nonsensical story, full of ridiculous events and unnatural circumstances, but all played out as if they were simple every day occurrences that could happen in our own lives. The baseball itself is fantasy, and not in an enjoyable way, while Roy Hobbs is a very unlikeable character, even when he is wronged. He is self-centered, uncouth, ill-mannered, and reminiscent of a borderline rapist the way he acts around the women in his life. The ending is a bit of a combination of Casey at the Bat by Ernest Thayer and 8 Men Out by Eliot Asinof (who recently Kurt Vonnegut'd on June 10).

The book is not a total wash, mind you. There is a bit of a moral running through the book, and there was one scene that I found poignant. It occurs at a lake with a woman Roy just met but has grown interested in.
"Everything came out different than I thought." His eyes were clouded.
"In what sense?"
"Different."
"I don't understand."
He coughed, tore his voice clear and blurted, "My goddamn life didn't turn out like I wanted it to."
"Whose does?" she said cruelly. He looked up. Her expression was tender.
The sweat oozed out of him. "I wanted everything." His voice boomed out in the silence.
She waited.
"I had a lot to give to this game."
"Life?"
"Baseball. If I had started out fifteen years ago like I tried to, I'da been the king of them all by now."
"The king of what?"
"The best in the game," he said impatiently.
* * *
"What beats me," he said with a trembling voice, "is why did it always have to happen to me? What did I do to deserve it?"
"Being stopped before you started?"
He nodded.
"Perhaps it was because you were a good person?"
"How's that?"
"Experience makes good people better."
She stared at the lake.
"How does it do that?"
"Through their suffering."
"I had enough of that," he said in disgust.
"We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with an dthe life we live with after that. Suffering is what brings us toward happiness."
"I had it up to here." He ran a finger across his windpipe.
"Had what?"
"What I suffered - and I don't want any more."
"It teaches us to want to the right things."
"All it taught me is to stay away from it. I am sick of all I have suffered."
Malamud's writing career was delayed by the Great Depression and then World War 2, so that his first book, this one, was not published until he was 38. I can sense the above scene played out in his own mind and soul. I can say I relate to it, too, and I imagine anyone who's ever gotten a raw deal or watched their hopes wither like every other unrealized expectation can relate to. It doesn't mean I like the novel any better, but I at least appreciate that one scene.