Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Cactus League: A Great American Novel About Baseball, But Also Life

If you're like me, and you believe baseball to be a near-perfect metaphor for life, then you'll love Emily Nemens' new novel, The Cactus League. Baseball, as does life, has its own rhythm and flow: time moves at its own pace. That's why a workday seems interminable, but your week of vacation seems to fly by in a blink. Similarly, when a setup man can't find the strike zone in the bottom of the 8th inning, you feel like time is crawling. But a a three-run, bottom-of the ninth rally zooms by like lightning. Time flies when you're having fun, they say. And time certainly flew as I read this terrific novel.

Nemens's novel is a series of character-driven vignettes, all intersecting and centering on a star left-fielder named Jason Goodyear who is careening towards rock bottom. The structure makes the novel feel like a mashup of Winesburg, Ohio and Philip Roth's goofy baseball book, The Great American Novel. I mean that as a high compliment.

Goodyear is personable and focused, but has developed a nasty gambling addiction. His wife has left him and he's living in a shed at the new spring training home of his team, the Los Angeles Lions. Each chapter gives us a new character who has some sort of relationship with Jason — a minor league hitting coach, his shady agent (who is right out of central casting for "shady agent," and was one of my favorite characters), a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery, the African American (possibly gay) part owner of the team, the players' wives, and a "cleat chaser" named Tami who enjoys a memorable evening with Jason at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin School (which I learned about for the first time, but then learned is closing almost simultaneously).

Portraying such a large swath of humanity gives Nemens the opportunity to illustrate another way baseball is a metaphor for life: The eternal struggle between the haves and the have-nots. It's heartbreaking to see the kid with the bum elbow do whatever he can for one more summer of glory in the sun. It's awful to see a drug-addicted mother, who works at the baseball stadium surrounded by millions of dollars, mistreat her young son. And it's wistful to watch the aging organist for whom technology has all but rendered obsolete cross paths with the up-and-coming bonus baby (even as he's struggling, too).

My favorite part of this novel, however, is just the baseball. Nemens REALLY knows baseball. She gets this right. It's almost entirely real, accurate, and authentic — which is almost never the case in baseball novels. As well, while the Lions are of course fictional, Nemens name drops plenty of real major leaguers, past and present. Pete Rose is referenced several times (a must for a novel in which the main character has a gambling addiction, because "Charlie Hustle knows plenty about Rule 21."). The agent has a dog named Kirby Puckett, which is both hilarious, and maybe slightly disrespectful (Kirby Puckett was the agent's first client, and so that's his way of honoring him.) And Jason Goodyear is the first player to have a shoe named after him since Ken Griffey, Jr.

I blew through this book in just a couple sittings. A few minor complaints aside, it's a terrific read — the best baseball novel I've read since The Art of Fielding. It was a perfect way to tide myself over until the actual Cactus League kicks off in a few weeks.

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