THE INFLUENCES OF Tanach and midrash were indelible in my early education. And the voices of Ozick and Roth and Yehoshua and Appelfeld argued and merged along with dozens of others in the conversations that shaped my Jewish identity. Yet for years, one of the books that influenced me most deeply was a book I hadn’t read.
Bernard Malamud’s characters, his sentences, his wisdom about humanity in the face of an unyielding world — all drew my attention from the moment I first read his work. I admired his fearlessness in tackling moral issues, admired it when his work was breathtaking and even more so in those few instances when I thought he’d fallen short. But for me the existence of the novel The Natural vaulted Malamud into an entirely different category. Once I heard that the book some referred to as the original baseball novel — a book devoid of any Jewish content — was penned by the same writer who wrote Yiddish-inflected magical realism and gritty novels of urban Jewish life, it reshaped my understanding of what it could mean, and what limitations it did and did not impose, to be a Jewish American writer. The Natural stood in my mind for years as a marker of freedom.
But it was, somehow, years before I finally picked up the novel. I cracked the spine with trepidation.
It was not a perfect book. At times it seemed a practice run — albeit with stunning prose and a riveting plot — for the issues Malamud would take on more fully elsewhere. But its impact remained profound. The author of The Natural was recognizable as the author of The Assistant; Roy Hobbs, the all-American slugger in The Natural, shares the blunt speech of Malamud’s immigrant Jews. Hobbs too, like so many of Malamud’s Jewish characters, tends to experience the world in metaphor rather than the more tentative simile. To these hard-bitten realists, the world doesn’t seem to be; the world is, and the fact that the world is as it is supplies all the catalyst necessary for Malamud’s often-tragic plots (suffice to say that the halcyon conclusion of the film version of The Natural departed completely from the ending of Malamud’s novel). In The Natural, the past is not past until atoned for (though perhaps not even then). Malamud’s writing, here as elsewhere, is profoundly moral in a way some people define as religious and others define as just fully and seriously human.
Yet for all these similarities to Malamud’s Jewish-themed fiction, The Natural is indelibly American. A direct line seems to connect Roy Hobbs with Willy Loman and Jay Gatsby, even Billy Budd. Hobbs’ story helped shape America’s understanding of its national pastime, and in some sense itself. Growing up, I was frequently asked, along with the rest of my Jewish day school classmates, whether I was foremost a Jew or an American. It was a thought-provoking question and so obviously well-meant that even now, years later, I’m reluctant to point out its simultaneous cruelty — its request that we choose. That we deny that we are, most of us, children of both worlds. The question is, of course, born of centuries of oppression. Had history not so violently accused us of difference, or (in those cases where renouncing Judaism purchased one’s safety) forced us to choose between faith and nationality, would we so insistently foist this question on ourselves?
The Natural feels like a conscious choice, by a writer who did not take the Jewish experience lightly but knew it in his bones, to refuse to answer this question. I don’t mean to oversimplify; art requires no philosophical justification, and Malamud may have desired simply to tell a good baseball story — the best, to paraphrase Roy Hobbs, that’s ever been. But for me, the novel is an affirmation of the right to be deeply Jewish without relinquishing a stake in the larger human race. The impact of Malamud’s choice to write this book feels, even now, like a moment he describes in one of the novel’s pivotal baseball games — the instant after a stunning play by the home team, in which the stands erupt around the field and the encircling universe of humanity “sounded like a gigantic drawerful of voices that had suddenly been pulled open.”email print