One of five top novels with sporting themes that he discussed with Alec Ash for The Browser:
[Y]our first pick is Bernard Malamud’s 1952 classic baseball novel The Natural.Read about the other books Harbach tagged at The Browser.
I actually only read The Natural last summer, after my book came out. It’s is about a baseball player named Roy Hobbs. He’s a young phenom who gets knifed by a woman on a train and falls away from the game for many years, but comes back at the end of his career and makes it to the major league for one moment of potential triumph. It’s a very dark book, in fact. Roy Hobbs is a really one-dimensional figure. He’s not a thoughtful guy. He’s very ambitious, in a narrow, greedy American sort of way. He only cares about the game.
The plot runs parallel to the myth of the Fisher King. The team is the New York Knights, the manager is called Pop Fisher, they’re seeking the National League pennant, and there’s this Excalibur-like bat called Wonderboy. It almost reads like an allegory.
Malamud does it very well. On the one hand it’s a very gritty book, and on the other hand it has deep mythic undertones. He obviously sees baseball within America as a mythic tradition. And if you know about the history of professional baseball, he takes a lot of baseball anecdotes from the turn of the century and weaves them into the book. So there’s the sense in the book that the history of baseball is a source of American mythos.
In the same way, perhaps, that the “Art of Fielding” book-within-a-book that gives your novel its name has a mythical, Sun-Tzu feel to it?
You’re right, the way that it’s written is quite Eastern – so not an American mythos but the same idea of a spiritual underpinning to the game, whether you’re a practitioner or a fan.
The Natural is among Jimmy So's thirteen best baseball books and Nicholas Dawidoff's five best baseball novels.