Study Guide

The Natural Strength and Skill

By Bernard Malamud

Strength and Skill

The other fingered his tie knot. "Why do you suppose she goes around pickin' on athletes for?"

"Not only athletes but also the cream of the crop. She's knocked off a crack football boy, and now an Olympic runner. Better watch out, Whammer, she may be heading for a baseball player for the third victim," Max chuckled.

Harriet Bird is a strange sort of serial killer. Max's question is a good one: why does she pick on cream-of-the-crop athletes? In a way, Harriet is kind of like destiny in the novel; just when someone feels like they're on top of the world, at the height of their strength, she's there to knock them down and defeat them.

He changed the fifty-cent piece Sam had slipped him on leaving the train, and this pretty girl in yellow, a little hefty but with a sweet face and nice ways, who with her peanut of a father was waiting on trade, handed him three balls. Lobbing one of them, Roy easily knocked off the pyramid and won himself a naked kewpie doll. (1.145)

The scene here is far from a professional baseball competition; it's a regular old carnival game. However, if you've ever tried to knock over the pyramid of bottles you know that sometimes those games aren't as easy as they look. The fact that Roy can easily knock off the pyramid shows his skill; and winning a naked doll might remind us that he's trying to impress Harriet with his skill, too.

As Roy fingered the ball for the last throw the Whammer came by holding over his shoulder a Louisville Slugger that he had won for himself in the batting cage down a way. Harriet, her pretty face flushed, had a kewpie doll, and Max Mercy carried a box of cigars. The Whammer had discarded his sun glasses and all but strutted over his performance and the prizes he had won. (1.151)

Wherever you get one guy showing off his strength and skill, it won't be long before another one struts in to challenge him. The prizes that the Whammer has won for himself and his friends are evidence of his batting prowess, and Roy is winning at pitching. The contest between them comes pretty naturally then.

"Oh, I love contests of skill," Harriet said excitedly. (1.159)

Even though the two men are competing against one another, it's not just for the honor of winning that they're playing. They're both looking for their kewpie doll, Harriet's attention. She knows it, and does her best to egg them on. Little do the players know that she is holding tryouts for her next victim.

Sam must have sensed it, because he discovered an unexpected pity in his heart and even for a split second hoped the idol would not be tumbled. But only for a second, for the Whammer had regained confidence in his known talent and experience and was taunting the greenhorn to throw. (1.216)

When the Whammer's confidence falters, it does something to the competitive spirit of the contest of skill. Sam, the catcher, who really needs Roy to win so he doesn't lose the bet, suddenly feels pity for the Whammer. He hates to see a legend go down. The situation doesn't last long though, because the Whammer calms down and knows he will beat this young upstart.

Practice picked up. The men worked faster and harder than they had in a long time. Pop suddenly felt so good, tears came to his eyes and he had to blow his nose. (3.52)

This scene is the first time we see the Knights as an actual, working baseball team. Instead of running and throwing to the wrong bases, they're actually showing off their skills and working hard. It is due to the competition between Bump and Roy, which inspires the rest of the players to pick up the pace, too.

Wonderboy flashed in the sun. It caught the sphere where it was biggest. A noise like a twenty-one gun salute cracked the sky. There was a straining, ripping sound and a few drops of rain spattered to the ground. The ball screamed toward the pitcher and seemed suddenly to dive down at his feet. He grabbed it to throw to first and realized to his horror that he held only the cover. The rest of it, unraveling cotton thread as it rode, was headed into the outfield. (3.98)

Roy's first at bat is a memorable experience. He's compared to some sort of mythical god like Zeus or Thor, who causes thunder and rain with the hit. The ball seems to have absorbed all of Roy's strength and take on a life of its own, coming apart because of the force with which he connected. Zeus vs. Thor—that would be a skill showdown worth watching.

Everybody agreed that in him the Knights had uncovered something special. (3.118)

It is very unusual for someone in his 30s, like Roy, to just walk on to a pro team and have the skill to start knocking them out of the park. It drives Max Mercy crazy, wondering how Roy got to be so good, but most of Roy's teammates get past wondering and just accept that he's awesome.

He swung with such power you could see a circle of dust lift off the ground as the bat passed over it, yet all it amounted to was breeze. It made many a pitcher feel like a pretty tough hombre to see Roy drag himself away from the plate and with lowered head enter the dugout. (6.14)

After we have seen all that Roy can do, watching him fall is baffling. It baffles Roy, too. Just as in his first at-bat, he's powerful enough to summon up some weather, but this time it's just a breeze instead of a thunderstorm.

Wickitt talked low as he studied Roy. "That ain't what I see. He looks old and beat up. Last week he had a mile-high bellyache in a ladies' hospital. They say he could drop dead any minute. Bear up and curve 'em low. I don't think he can bend to his knees. Get one strike on him and he will be your nookie." (10.127)

The championship game is on the line, and the opposing team's coach and pitcher size up the once-strong Roy. Wickitt's description of Roy as having a "mile-high bellyache in a ladies' hospital" takes away his masculine power.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...