Joseph Edwin Haeger

Book Review: The Cactus League by Emily Nemens

(Photo of Emily Nemens by James Emmerman)

Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews The Cactus League by Emily Nemens. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

 

Growing up, I was a baseball kid. It helped that my prime baseball years were when the Mariners had Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, and A-Rod. Then, my junior and high school years came rolling around and sports became significantly less important. In the past couple of years, I’ve circled back to baseball and forgotten how much I love it.

It’s also recently that I learned how the whole organization is built. Minor league baseball teams are essentially a training ground for the majors. A friend of mine broke the whole thing down the other night over beers, and I felt dumb for not already figuring it out (so, if you knew and you’re thinking I’m dumb for not knowing, you’re justified).

This conversation took place when I first started reading The Cactus League by Emily Nemens. A few years ago, I fell in love with The Art of Fielding and I’ve been looking for great baseball novels ever since, so, the baseball on the cover of Nemens’s novel reeled me in. It revolves around the preseason months when the teams haven’t made final decisions and some guys will go to the MLB and others will be sent off to the minors.

The Cactus League is a mosaic novel, built up like the nine innings of a baseball game. Each section is introduced from an omnipotent narrator (but we’re led to believe it’s a journalist who’s in the process of writing a bigger story) giving an oral history of how Arizona was formed and what brought the league there. Then, each intermittent section between these recurring overviews is treated like short stories.

These are nine stories that all have a connective thread of the left field all-star, Jason Goodyear. These stories vary from a woman who hangs out in the parking lot in hopes of taking a ballplayer home, to a homeless six-year-old fan, and many in between. Some of these moments have more to do with baseball than others (like the old batting coach who’s on the verge of retirement) to a physical therapist’s assistant (who eventually goes to look for Goodyear’s manager). At times, we only see Goodyear in the periphery and that’s why I’m confused about the structure of this novel. We’re doing a deep dive into different characters and I’m not sure to what effect; whether it’s thematic or plot-driven, I think I’m missing the central point it’s trying to make.

 

The Cactus League is a collection of short stories—some fantastic and some that didn’t quite do it for me—and in the end I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be seeing or feeling.

 

I enjoyed the first story in this novel (the one following the batting coach, Michael). He is back in Arizona for the training season, but upon his arrival he finds his home trashed. Someone has broken in and made their home for who-knows-how-long. His wife is rattled and feels unsafe, but through his sheer action, he brings stability back to their life. In the home intrusion, his new Cadillac is stolen. He gives up on the cops finding the car and takes the insurance money only to find the car in a restaurant parking lot. He knows they could find the intruders, but instead chooses to pull out a baseball bat and go to town on the stolen car. He smashes all the windows, taking the frustration and anger out on the car, and then simply walks away.

I was expecting to go back to this man for some resolution, but we’re left with that ending as the final word on his story. Additionally, a few of the sections end with open-ended conclusions and, while I find those finales compelling in standalone short stories, it was lacking here with a feeling of incompleteness.

The next story follows Tami, a woman trying to bag a ballplayer. Moments felt like it was taken right out of Bull Durham, and as much as I like that movie, I don’t think it needs to be repeated. This section felt derivative and like it was treading waters already explored. Moments felt completely tone deaf, like the women portrayed were caricatures of people found on celluloid.

The novel had some highlights after this story, but I was losing faith until I got to a gut-wrenching section where we follow the homeless six-year-old. Alex is confused and innocent as he’s dragged around town by his drug-addicted mom. In the moments displaying his skewed worldview, my heart fractured. The Cactus League is about broken and struggling people, but when we’re focusing on a boy who doesn’t deserve any of this, I saw a real honesty and light shine out of Nemens’s novel. Alex’s choices didn’t lead him to the circumstances he’s forced to deal with, but it doesn’t make his struggle any less real. The only thing this little boy is guilty of is loving his mom too much. This whole story was so touching it bumped the whole book up a star rating for me.

When I initially picked The Cactus League up, I was hoping for a lot of baseball, but understood it’s a novel that needs to carry emotional resonance (and be universal enough that everyone can get something out of it). The problem is I wasn’t expecting Nemens to try to jam so much story into it. At a certain point it seemed like Nemens lost sight of what her intention was.

The Cactus League is a collection of short stories—some fantastic and some that didn’t quite do it for me—and in the end I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be seeing or feeling.

 

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Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of Learn to Swim, a memoir published by University of Hell Press.

 

Joseph Edwin Haeger

Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of Learn to Swim (University of Hell Press, 2015). His writing has appeared in The Pacific NW Inlander, RiverLit, Hippocampus Magazine, and others. He lives in Spokane, Washington with his wife and son.

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