There’s something marvelous and sad about Roy Hobbs’ bat. Made from a tree felled by lightning, it is the symbol of the slugger’s youth, his promise, and his fragility. He carries it around in a bassoon case, which is Malamud’s playful touch. People who run into Hobbs find it funny to see a strapping man, such as he is, schlepping such a poindexterish item.
He is so fixed on the bat’s talismanic powers he refuses to hit with anything else. When Pop Fischer forbids Roy to bat with it, Roy is miffed. He’d rather sit on the bench than part with his hand-carved love.
During that long slump “Wonderboy resembled a sagging baloney”. Roy is trying to hit a home run for Mike Barney’s son, the poor chump whose little boy is dying in the hospital. “How could he explain to Barney that he had traded his kid’s life away out of loyalty to a hunk of wood?” Loyalty is not the slugger’s Achilles’ heel, but rather his foolish pride and his desperate need to impress those who matter least. He is so blindly devoted to impressing others he never saw Harriet Byrd’s silver bullet firing his way. Hobbs is a tragic, Grecian figure. His lot seems to be irrevocably chosen. You’d almost wish he had a touch of Machiavellian wit to dodge both these silver and metaphorical bullets.
“The Natural” does not end happily as in the Robert Redford Tri-Star version. The fallen hero Hobbs waits until the angry crowd has left the stadium before he ventures into the outfield to bury the two remaining halves of his faithful bat. He is so grief-stricken, cannot bear to see his Wonderboy split asunder, he removes his shoelaces and ties the wooden shards together. He “wishes it would take root and become a tree.”
A great whim, and Malamud lets Hobbs consider cupping his hands with water as a last solemn gesture when Hobbs realizes the water would merely spill through his fingers. And yes, his youth, his chance at greatness, it all has slipped through his fingers.