In Nemens’s insightful debut, it’s 2011 and players of the L.A. Lions professional baseball team are reporting for spring training at their new facility, Salt River Fields, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Under a hot Southwestern sun, a sportswriter waits to interview the team’s golden boy, left fielder Jason Goodyear, whose handsome façade belies some unsavory secrets. Readers see Jason glancingly from eight different points of view: a put-upon batting coach whose mantra is “what would Joe DiMaggio do?”; a baseball groupie who sets her sights on him; a sports agent forced to cover up his client’s misdeeds to protect a Nike contract; the team owner with his own façade to maintain; a pitcher desperately trying to hide a painful elbow injury; the organist at the field where the Lions play; the seven-year-old son of a drug-addicted single mother who runs one of the concessions at the field; and Jason’s ex-wife, who finds herself reduced in the pecking order with the other players’ wives. Largely plotless, the book is a vivid collection of stories, as each character is brought to life in convincing detail, though the sportswriter’s interstitial musings can be intrusive. Still, this debut entertainingly illuminates people and problems usually overlooked in the sports pages. (Feb.)
"There are probably more good novels about baseball than any other sport. More bad ones, too. Emily Nemens’s The Cactus League definitely belongs in that first lineup." Charles McGrath, The New York Times Book Review
"[Nemens] demonstrates deep knowledge not only of baseball but also of American desperation . . . Nemens makes us care about even the worst of [her characters], a neat trick of unsentimental empathy and a testament to the power of careful, almost loving, observation . . . With her sharp eye for the details of unremarkable lives, Nemens at times reminds one of Joan Didion, and her Southwestern dreamers." Kate Tuttle, Los Angeles Times
"A panoramic portrait . . . Nemens’s adoration of the game is infectious, and her novel is packed with winning details." Karen Heller, The Washington Post
[The Cactus League] tempers the grandiosity inherent in baseball and implies that games have always been an important part of being human . . . Its many pleasures come from spending time with Goodyear and the others whose lives connect to the game, and from pondering how the dramas of everyday life and the imperatives of professional sports influence each other." Josh Ostergaard, San Francisco Chronicle
"As Nemens portrays the life of the teama pitcher is in thrall to pain pills; players’ wives hold a lingerie partyit starts to seem almost an organism, each constituent part brushing against others in a larger story of competition, survival, and obsession." The New Yorker (Briefly Noted)
"[A] wise debut . . . [The Cactus League speaks] strongly to baseball's enduring vitality. The home runs and strikeouts may be background noise, but they're ubiquitous all the same. They've defined this community its heartbreaks, its victories, its changes. They've created a world." David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly
"[Nemens] works within the quirky register of the heart, writing about one of her great passions: baseball. She crafts a humorous and emotional novel about a star outfielder, and the coaches, fans and criminals who inhabit the same off-kilter world." Cody Delistraty, The Wall Street Journal
"Emily Nemens’s debut novel about spring baseball, The Cactus League, has all of [Walt] Whitman’s so described snap, go, and fling to it, but it carries with it the elusive spirit of the game, too . . . As a baseball novel, The Cactus League treads deftly between the conventions, clichés, kitsch, legends, and nostalgia inherent in a sport that is over half the age of the United States itself." Mike Broida, Los Angeles Review of Books
"Baseball is said to be the most literary of sports, inspiring fiction that aims to capture its artistry and symmetry, so a book like The Cactus League that succeeds as a robust social novel hits the elusive sweet spot . . . Nemens creates an alternative world with nuance beyond the score sheet, rife with ambition and jealousy, disappointment and victory." National Book Review
"In The Cactus League, baseball remains a sturdy vehicle to contemplate contemporary American culture, in addition to the whole dense spectrum of human relationships . . .captivating." Brady Brickner-Wood, Harvard Review
"You don’t have to enjoy baseball (sport, game, or what have you) to find this semi novel-in-stories a richly layered, often tender and generous, exposé of the life of players, fans, and everyone in between . . . There is more to this book than the best sports reporting: peeling back the curtain, examining the people behind the statistics, and understanding that sometimes the most crucial plays are the ones happening off the field." Sara Cutaia, Chicago Review of Books
"Nemens delivers an engaging, eccentric cast of players, coaches, families, and others who inhabit the world of baseball . . . From start to finish, Nemens captures the spirit of the game." The Millions
"[A] quirky first novel . . . [The Cactus League] showcases a fascinating gallimaufry of characters who swirl around the edges of the springtime ritual . . . Nemens finds a kind of attenuated hope along with melancholy in these sharply etched character studies that “end not with ‘out three’ but ‘out maybe.’'" Booklist (starred review)
"[An] insightful debut . . . each character is brought to life in convincing detail . . . this debut entertainingly illuminates people and problems usually overlooked in the sports pages." Publishers Weekly
" A novel about baseball and how it shapes the lives of athletes as much as the town that supports itand a beautiful one at that . . . Like the best sportswriting, this bighearted, finely observed novel is about far more than the game." Kirkus
“Emily Nemens's magnificent debut is a masterwork of great empathy and detail, uncovering the realms of incredible pain and beauty enmeshed within every level of America's pastime. If you love baseball, you won't put it down, and if you don't love baseball, you might by the end.” J. Ryan Stradal, author of The Lager Queen of Minnesota and Kitchens of the Great Midwest
“A debut? You’ve got to be kidding.The Cactus League reads like the work of a seasoned novelist. The way the story’s tension ramps, the richly drawn characters, the indelible imageryyou’ll never see a ball park the samenot to mention Emily Nemens’s knowledge of America’s pastime is downright encyclopedic. And while all those things are true, absolutely true, the heart of this amazing novel is Emily’s understanding of the crucibles faced by those both in the limelight and out of it. Goodyear and the rest of the gang are a cast for the ages. Hip hip hooray for this achievement.” Mitchell S. Jackson, author of Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family
“The Cactus League is not just another baseball novel. I can't think of another book that so carefully examines the complex ecosystem of professional sport. With both compassion and objectivity, Emily Nemens deftly depicts the rich lives and stories that swirl beneath the ‘meaningless’ innings of spring training.” Chris Bachelder, author of The Throwback Special
“Emily Nemens gets beneath the imagethe macho chewing, spitting, ball fondling, the studied nonchalant distractionto the real people on the field and off. She's a true fan, and one hell of a writer. The Cactus League is crisp, clean, funny, and just plain good. If you love baseball, and fiction, you'll love this book." Brad Watson, author of Miss Jane
DEBUT This first novel is a beautifully realized meditation on the complex, uncertain nature of daily life. "Nothing is static," Nemens's grizzled narrator, a longtime sportswriter, muses at the beginning of the story; "everything changes." The unlikely subject of his thoughts is spring-training baseball, where the unpredictable ebb and flow from season to season is dramatically visible in the performances of both teams and individual players—life's vicissitudes made manifest on the field. Set in Scottsdale, AZ, in 2011, the story chronicles the fortunes of star player Jason Goodyear, recent recipient of a Golden Glove Award and American League MVP runner-up. Things have changed significantly since last year, however. Goodyear's marriage has ended, and his passion for gambling has become a dangerous addiction he can no longer control. Nemens deftly handles the narrative arc of this story, effectively blending various plotlines involving Jason, his agent, his teammates, and his fans and bringing them all to a compelling, heartbreaking conclusion. Nemens's knowledge of the subtleties of baseball complements her philosophical content in powerful ways. VERDICT A triumphant debut; enthusiastically recommended for fans of literary fiction and great sports writing.—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT
A star left fielder for the Los Angeles Lions is in personal and professional free fall in this debut novel from the editor of the Paris Review.
Jason Goodyear is a major league star: He's got a Golden Glove, solid MVP votes, and a big deal with Nike. So why is he suffering through a divorce, damaging historical property, and losing prominent endorsements? That's the question an unnamed sportswriter, the casualty of an agonizing round of newspaper layoffs, sets out to answer. Instead of going straight to the source, however, he tracks the movements of everyone adjacent to Goodyear during the 2011 spring training season in Scottsdale, Arizona. There's Tamara Rowland, a down-on-her-luck divorcée who enjoys picking up ball players for a casual fling; Stephen Smith, a partial owner of the Lions and the only black man who has any power in the franchise; William Goslin, a rookie first baseman who is flattered into helping Goodyear get out of trouble; and even a chorus of "baseball wives" who know that spring training "is a party: luncheons and spa days, cocktails and color consultations, mornings at the furrier's and afternoons with the jeweler." What emerges, however, is less a picture of Goodyear during a moment of personal crisis than a portrait of Scottsdale and its residents as they recover from the 2008 recession. The sportswriter intersperses each chapter-length character study with his own digressive musings about everything from Goodyear's motivations to belabored geological metaphors for the draft. Unfortunately, this frame narrative for Nemens' ambitious, sprawling, and otherwise impeccably written debut is an often clunky and frustrating misdirection. Although the sportswriter insists readers can understand Goodyear's inner workings by examining peers, colleagues, and characters on the periphery, he never bothers to tell us how these character studies shed light on the star player. As it turns out, Goodyear isn't really at the heart of this book at all. He's a premise rather than a true-blue character. It's a strange choice on the part of Nemens, who created a narrator uniquely situated to deliver on his initial promises—or subvert them openly and purposefully. Nemens has instead written a novel about baseball and how it shapes the lives of athletes as much as the town that supports it—and a beautiful one at that. As our narrator would put it: "It's more, He did this, he said that, and then the whole world unfurled." It simply would have been nice to know that that was the only game we were playing.
Like the best sportswriting, this bighearted, finely observed novel is about far more than the game.