Every year around Valentine’s Day, Major League Baseball teams begin to assemble — first the pitchers and catchers; later the position players — for spring training. Because baseball is a warm-weather sport (April games at Fenway, notwithstanding), they go where the sun is, either to Florida or Arizona, to work out and play preseason games in what are colloquially known as the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues, respectively.
In “The Cactus League,” Emily Nemens’ debut novel, the fictional Los Angeles Lions gather for the 2011 spring season in Scottsdale, Ariz., and trouble starts right away. The team’s minor league batting coach arrives to learn that his Arizona home has been nearly ruined by squatters, who have also made off with his Escalade. The guy who plays the organ at the ballpark is having trouble finding the right notes. And the team’s star left fielder, fresh off a divorce, is spiraling out of control for reasons nobody can quite figure out.
Jason Goodyear, the left fielder in question, is a clean-cut Midwesterner, taciturn to the point of mystery. The other players’ wives gossip about why his marriage has struck out — is it infidelity, is he in the closet, is he less than impressive below the belt? — but all he’ll tell Tami, the older woman he flirts with one disastrous night, is that his problem relates to “thrill-seeking behavior,” an affliction shared in one way or another by nearly everyone in the book. Goodyear sits at the center of a novel in which the most interesting stuff happens around the edges.
Nemens, editor of the Paris Review, demonstrates deep knowledge not only of baseball but also of American desperation. The book’s nine chapters are set among the different groups that revolve around the Lions: the players, coaches, owners and agents; the ballpark staff; and the hangers-on (“cleat chasers,” the baseball wives sniff). Nemens has a keen eye for detail, from the semi-feral unfinished tract homes in a suburban subdivision to the glittering routine of the players’ wives: “luncheons and spa days, cocktails and color consultations, mornings at the furrier’s and afternoons with the jeweler.” She’s brilliant with lists and with compression. Whole worlds are sketched in miniature, as in the chapter focused on Alex, a poor first-grader growing up in the shadow of luxury, which is to say, in America:
“Sam is at school now because his mom dropped him off and he has cheese crackers and he shares those and gives Alex half his cupcake and then they run around the playground and climb to the top of the jungle gym and spit on girls down below because they are princes defending their castle from witches.”
For a book about the notoriously languorous sport of baseball, this is a quick and often thrilling read.
That same gender dynamic plays out among the adults here. With the exception of the batting coach and his wife, who genuinely love each other, there are few happy relationships in “The Cactus League.” The men are unreliable, egocentric and prone to addiction, the women nakedly motivated by greed and vanity. Yet Nemens makes us care about even the worst of them, a neat trick of unsentimental empathy and a testament to the power of careful, almost loving, observation.
A semi-omniscient narrator, an unnamed down-on-his-luck sportswriter, introduces each chapter, stitching together the events of the season alongside a broader view of the region’s history. He invites us to consider that the earth under which the Lions now play “was once a sea, shallow and warm and dotted with coral reefs,” where “sharks swam through the dugouts, finning to the mound and back.” It’s a conceit that doesn’t always work — especially when comparing the land’s first people to a team that once flourished and then lost big — but at times there’s a gritty charm to the sportswriter’s voice, as when he recalls the early years covering Goodyear: “I watched him grow into his stride like a big-footed puppy, grow into his swing like the lumberjack he’s now known to be. And it was a joy.”
That joy is what all the characters are grasping for, in one way or another. It’s not always about what makes sports sublime: Some of the people drawn into the Lions’ orbit care less about baseball than architecture, or ballet, or music, or money or sex. But they are all chasing something.
With her sharp eye for the details of unremarkable lives, Nemens at times reminds one of Joan Didion, and her Southwestern dreamers (especially the cleat-chasing aging divorced women who “lean on their alimonies and try to keep their overhead low”). There’s something here too of John Dos Passos; while short, “The Cactus League” feels as if it’s painted on a very big canvas, a detailed map of something, with dozens of vividly sketched inhabitants.
For a book about the notoriously languorous sport of baseball, this is a quick and often thrilling read. For a debut novel, it’s remarkably self-assured. Nemens brings the book to a close while leaving her characters’ fates uncertain — no extra innings here — and that seems like the right choice too. Baseball has long games and a seemingly endless season (especially if you count spring training), but the moments within each game are ephemeral, from the fleeting drama of a tense at-bat to a bang-bang play at first. “Here’s the thing about baseball, and all else: everything changes,” says the sportswriter. As we all say after our team fizzles out during the pennant race, wait till next year.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 288 pages; $27
Tuttle is a book critic whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the New York Times and the Washington Post.