The Cactus League
By Emily Nemens
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 288pp, £20.99/$27

Many readers will be drawn to Emily Nemens’s first novel because of her day job as editor of the Paris Review, America’s premier literary journal. The product of Louisiana State University’s creative writing programme and a slew of writers’ retreats, the novel is shy of 300 pages but nevertheless full of colourful characters and compelling life stories.

Set in Scottsdale, Arizona, The Cactus League follows the lives of professional baseball players and their entourage – from their (ex-)wives, agents and team owners down to their fans and even the staff who work in the stadium. What we see is a community whose focal point may be the sport of baseball, but whose real driving force is the human condition.

The protagonist, Jason Goodyear, is a player at the end of his tether due to poker debts, divorce and physical injury. Others, such as the divorcee Tamara “Tami” Rowland, are still looking for a better life – a new baseball player to nurture, a new husband with which to reinvent herself. There are many characters in this novel, but the most important one is the city of Scottsdale.

Nemens emphasises the suburban aspect of Scottsdale, from the shoddily built houses developed by Ronald Duncan, to thehousewives’ gossipy chit-chat. It stands in stark contrast to the timeless modernist architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Taliesen West residence is broken into by Jason and Tami on their impromptu date, and to the Hohokam settlement built before Christ.

Plucked out of his native Iowa to be drafted into professional baseball, Goodyear signs a $150-million contract which affords him several houses and a lavish lifestyle. Yet it is his character that is admirable. His relentless zeal on the court is evident, but his self-abnegation in rescuing a young fan inside a scalding car shows us that selflessness is what made him deserving of his success.

The novel is sympathetic to Scottsdale’s out-of-luck characters, such as a homeless family whose mother sells food in the stadium, unable to afford childcare, let alone rent.

The multitude of characters may be unnecessary. Instead of introducing us to players Corey and Trey, Nemens could have portrayed Goodyear more deeply. Similarly, the long dialogues are not always interesting, and the use of swearwords is disappointing. Perhaps Nemens wanted to represent real life, and write a less literary novel than the ones she is used to reading as the editor of a review. Yet at times, the novel reads more like a movie script.

Nemens anchors 2011 as a pivotal year for American culture. Most characters are still reeling from the financial crisis, and trying to survive in spite of its subsequent Great Recession. Imprudent lavishness is the downfall of many, no matter how deep their cushions may have seemed.

Distracting them from the pangs of financial hardship is the increasing acceptance of women and minorities. The team’s part-owner, Stephen Smith, is African-American, paralleling the then-president’s success story, and a mayoral candidate is a woman – albeit in nearby Phoenix.

Nemens also asks questions about the viability of baseball in American culture. She reminds us of legendary players such as Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and Joe DiMaggio. Yet by 2011, the sport of baseball had become a moderately outdated game, in large part due to the influx of Mexican migrants whose cultural ties lay with futbol, or soccer.

The Cactus League is sure to enthrall many readers, with its journey into the lives of baseball players – and into the community of Scottsdale, full of dashed hopes and delusions of grandeur.

Victor Stepien is an Americanist and critic. He lives in London.

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