Malamud's first novel, published in 1952, is a lumpish, over-written baseball novel splashed with magic realism.
Roy Hobbs, a late-in-life rookie slugger with preternatural gifts and an unbreakable bat, joins the National League New York Knights for one glorious season.
As literary writing, the book strains:
The game was over and the players hoofed through the tunnel into the locker room.
They tore out of their uniforms and piled into the showers.
Some stayed in only long enough to wet their skins.
Wiping themselves dry, they tumbled into street clothes.
There are good moments when Malamud achieves some ironic humor, as when a series of preposterous gifts are presented to Roy during a player appreciation day. After cataloging "two television sets, a baby tractor, five hundred feet of pink plastic garden hose, a nanny goat, ... and a credit for seventy-five taxi rides in Philadelphia," the narrator observes that "Although the committee had tried to keep out all oddball combinations, a few slipped in, including a smelly package of Limburger cheese..."
The passage in the night club in which Roy humiliates a bookie with a show of (real? fake?) conjuring is effective.
The fictional New York Knights play in an otherwise geographically correct NL universe, taking on the Boston Braves and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and fighting Pittsburgh for the pennant and a shot at the Yankees. Fans of today may find expressions like "safety" and "bingle" either foolishly dated or of historical interest (how long will our expression "base knock" last?).
it's hard to overlook the Knights appearance for a night game at Wrigley Field, decades before the Cubs played at home under the lights.
When one reads of Roy's "hundreds of records" set in only one season, without any mention of hard numbers, or of his coaches' ineffective means of trying to pull him out of a slump, one gets the feeling that the author has read a lot of overheated baseball journalism, but never played nine innings himself.
One of Roy's home runs takes an improbable path between the pitcher's legs.
One big baseball season makes for a good short story; one crucial at bat makes a poem, as Ernest Lawrence Thayer showed us.
But one slugger doesn't make a team, especially one like the Knights, who field a team of baseball card cutouts. The life of baseball has a different rhythm than that of Malamud's unbelievable novel.