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Pop Fisher, manager of the New York Knights, is watching his team lose with a fellow coach, Red Blow. They are in the midst of a dry season, with no rain for weeks. The playing field is parched and barren looking. Fisher is irritable because he has "athlete's foot of the hands," causing him to wrap them up to try and prevent himself from scratching. Pop wishes he had been a farmer.
The team's star player, Bump Baily, is the leading hitter of the league, but an umpire has just thrown Bump out of the game. Just then, a new player arrives—Roy Hobbs. Pop is shocked by Roy's age; Roy is thirty-four. The Judge, the team's owner, has signed Roy for a mere $3,000. Pop is tempted to contest Roy's contract, but since the Knights' best scout sent Roy up, Pop decides to give Roy a chance despite his age. In the locker room, Roy thinks he hears the voice of the Whammer, but it turns out to be Bump Baily, talking with Max Mercy. Mercy does not recognize Roy or remember his name.
After the game, Pop reprimands the players, while Bump heckles him. Pop is clearly defenseless and unable to control or inspire his team. That night, Pop kindly takes Roy with him to a hotel. That night, Bump knocks on Roy's door and asks him to switch places, as he has a "lady friend" coming over. As Roy heads to Bump's room, he spots a young, redheaded woman in her underwear, combing her hair. Roy is immediately taken with her, but she screams and slams the door.
Red Blow then shows up and takes Roy around the city, explaining the history of Pop and the Knights. Red reveals that Pop has been crushed ever since he "flopped" during a home run while playing for the Red Sox—a mistake that cost the team the World Series. For the twenty-five years since, Pop has been trying to lead the Knights to a pennant, believing that would break his jinx. But the Judge, who now owns sixty percent of the team, is doing his best to ruin the team and make Pop surrender his remaining forty percent ownership. Roy goes to sleep in Bump's room, with uneasy dreams. As he sleeps, the redheaded woman enters the room in the darkness, and they make love.
In this section, Malamud introduces many more allusions to Arthurian myth. The team, of course, is the Knights, like the Knights of the Round Table. Pop Fisher is the ailing Fisher King. In the legend—or, rather, in one of its many versions—the Fisher King burns his hands when he tries to claim the Grail for his own glory. Pop's hands, afflicted with "athlete's foot of the hands," itch depending on the success or failure of the team. Pop has been jinxed ever since he failed to grasp the Holy Grail—the World Series victory—twenty-five years earlier. Now, Pop believes that by leading the Knights to a World Series victory, or at least a league pennant, he can heal the team and his own jinx. However, Pop needs a true hero, a real Knight, to provide necessary leadership. So far, the selfish, foolish Bump has been unable to do so.
It is ultimately up to Roy—another "natural" like Bump or the Whammer, but perhaps even better—to take yet another shot at achieving this Grail- quest. Bump has failed so far, driven as he is by his own laziness and self- centeredness. Roy is clearly in a similar position to Bump, but there is a thoughtfulness to Roy, a kind of simple charm, that makes it seem as if he has the potential to break out of earlier mold of failed heroes. Ultimately, however, we see that Roy allows his desires—for Memo, for fame, for food—lto drag him from the right path. Reading The Natural is somewhat of an exercise in frustration, as Roy continually makes what are clearly bad and foolish decisions; his lust for Memo and rejection of Iris seem like things that no sane person would ever choose to do. On the one hand, Malamud chooses to update Arthurian myths by placing them in a real-world setting. But he attempts to present these myths in a realistic mode, which sometimes causes problems for the characterization of Roy. On the one hand, Roy is a mythological hero, moving through dangerous situations that few real people will ever encounter; but Roy is also portrayed as a rather simple man of plain appetites, unable to make any sense of the myth-based world he inhabits. It seems almost unfair of Malamud to place a realistic (if painfully clueless) character like Roy into a mythological setting, and then let him flounder. The tone of the novel is often depressing, as Roy constantly rejects obvious positive values for negative ones. Already, in this section, the redheaded woman (who we learn later is Memo) has captured Roy's limited imagination, and she will soon become an obsession from which Roy frees himself only after he has lost everything. Despite his age, Roy has learned nothing in the last fifteen years; he is the same lustful, clueless teenager he was at the novel's beginning.
We may wonder why Malamud chooses to place an interval of fifteen years between Roy's first shot at the major leagues and his second. Once again, Malamud is somewhat bound to his choice of a mythological setting. In the first section ("Pre-Game"), Roy strikes out the Whammer, an aging star. This event represents the beginning of the vegetative myth, as the younger hero-god replaces the dying, elder one. In order for the myth to work, however, Roy must be the same age when his own power waxes and wanes, as the vegetative myth cycles with the seasons, within a single year. Roy must play (or, as a hero-god, "exist") for one season and one season only, like all such hero-gods. Malamud therefore creates a device to suddenly make Roy the age of a veteran player: his shooting by Harriet Bird.