Baseball lends itself well to the novelistic staging of America in the long recession. This isn’t only because baseball players try desperately to get home safe but also and especially because they almost always fail to do so. Nearly every batter is put out—we might say evicted—before he crosses home plate. Moreover, baseball has always been an economic game—it helped establish the bloated economics of professional sports and is obsessed with telling stories through compilations of numbers and statistics. To be a fan often means keeping an account, logging an economy of averages, rates, and expected outcomes. Following baseball is a forensic task, explains philosopher Alva Noë in Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark, assigning “credit or blame for what happens on the field” as you write down the story of the game at hand.
What’s more, baseball’s internal economy, the maximization of the rate of return (that is, how a team can score the most runs as quickly as possible), has increasingly resembled the boom-bust cycle of contemporary capitalism. The rise of what is called the “three true outcomes” batter—those outcomes being a walk, a strikeout, and a home run requiring no participation from anyone besides the pitcher, catcher, and batter—has encouraged a feast-or-famine offensive attitude not unlike financial speculation.
Such speculation is at the heart of Emily Nemens’s debut, The Cactus League. Financial chicanery is the fatal flaw of Jason Goodyear, the ostensible protagonist, and the novel traces the material consequences of speculative thinking. Set around the Scottsdale, Arizona, spring-training complex of the fictional Los Angeles Lions baseball club, The Cactus League is about a certain sort of cruelty. Nemens—who has served since 2018 as the editor of the Paris Review—has written a baseball novel largely unconcerned with the on-field drama, the narratives of wins and losses that fans like to describe in elevated terms, as heartbreak or tragedy. Instead, The Cactus League has its eye on systemic cruelty: economic precariousness, housing insecurity, the thinness of the line between buoyancy and ruin made thinner by the excesses of wealth and power—essentially, the collected cruelties of American capitalism.
Here it might help to remember the old, half-ironic refrain of the Brooklyn Dodgers fan: “Wait till next year.” That is, when things might change, but probably won’t.
We like to say that baseball brings people together, but Nemens wants us to ask, which people?
This concern, rendered in a language thoroughly and self-consciously obsessed with the way baseball talks about itself, wins The Cactus League admission into a small club of recent sports novels that break with the mythological register of the genre. These new works—Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, and Sergio de la Pava’s Lost Empress come to mind—signal what we could call a “new materialism” in the sports novel.
What I mean is that these novels, Nemens’s included, acknowledge sports as a material and social phenomenon—as a series of ongoing events, gatherings of people at certain times that are made possible only through the efforts of other people. The drama of these novels does not exist within the parameters of a particular sport; rather, each work begins with the sport as the center of a web of relations, a power or force that influences and arranges the material facts of living.
In Nemens’s case, for example, baseball becomes meaningful not through the collected acts of the players on the field but only when we ask what the game does as a social or cultural thing, how it organizes relationships. We like to say that baseball brings people together, but Nemens wants us to ask, which people? A game of baseball must always occur at some place—a park or lot or field—and every place has its own network of people and objects, some present and some absent.
In other words, there is the game itself, the thing seen: the balls and strikes and errors. But there are also underlying and adjacent structures, typically unseen, that include the makers of bats, the grandparents who taught the game to the fans, and the legislator whose tax write-off allowed the stadium to be built here and not elsewhere.
The Cactus League is dedicated to exploring those networks. It insists that the reader keep moving, because the interesting thing about a professional baseball team is not one person’s psychological messiness but the cumulative effect of encountering so many people at various degrees of remove from the play happening on the field. This is the aim of the novel’s structure: The Cactus League is divided into nine sections (that is, innings) dedicated to nine characters, separated by interstitial asides from a grizzled, laid-off sportswriter who narrates the history of Scottsdale in geologic time (and largely in baseball clichés).
Nemens’s ostensible narrative throughline is the story of star outfielder Jason Goodyear, who has lost his fortune and his wife to a debilitating gambling addiction. But we are not given sufficient time to finish unraveling the knots of any particular character’s interiority. Just as we begin to sketch their outlines, we’re politely but firmly ushered out of their story and into the next. Nemens is not attempting to achieve psychological depth; she is committed to showing how these characters as a congregation navigate the baseball-centric orbit in which they’re caught. Although their stories’ structures are not precisely congruent, the aggregate effect makes reading The Cactus League feel a little like reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.
It’s worth mentioning the mythological tradition that The Cactus League tries to move beyond. Since baseball’s founding in the nineteenth century, fans have expressed an inexhaustible desire to place the game in symbolic relation to America and Americanness. It’s therefore appropriate that baseball appears in one of the founding documents of American letters: the 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which includes “a good game of base-ball” alongside “pic-nics” and “jigs” as examples of quintessentially American recreation. Baseball has proven the most durable entertainment—all due respect given to the robust form of the jig—at least in part because it has been so successfully intertwined with the effort to assemble an American mythology.
Thus, the baseball novel has been, at least since Bernard Malamud’s 1952 The Natural, typically a mythological form. In some cases, it has directly invoked other mythological systems alongside an Americanized magical realism. These novels tend to adopt a recombinatory or maximalist attitude, a compensatory largesse in response to the impossibility of any Whitmanesque attempt to speak for, or about, America.
For example, Michael Chabon’s young-adult novel Summerland piles Norse, Old West, and various Native American mythologies atop one another in an overstuffed palimpsest held together, sort of, by baseball. Likewise the collected work of Canadian author W. P. Kinsella, whose first novel, Shoeless Joe, became the Kevin Costner vehicle Field of Dreams. But Kinsella’s second novel, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, is more ambitious, using baseball as the connective tissue among Old Testament revivalism, Melvillian monomania, and (once again) Native American legend.
This mythological pattern, in postmodern and metafictional novels like Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., turns inward. Coover’s novel understands that the act of creating narrative—in particular, the codependency between the author and the text—is itself subject to mythologizing. The titular Henry’s life deteriorates as he grows obsessed with a dice-rolling baseball simulation; when his favorite player, Damon, dies on the field, Henry discards the dice and transforms from gamerunner to god. By the novel’s end Henry is so thoroughly enmeshed in the game world that he hardly notices the loss of his friend and job as he imagines his invented players commemorating Damon’s death through ritualized sacrifice. In other words, Coover’s novel explores how a narrative takes shape and seizes authorial power from its creator (if, indeed, he ever possessed it at all). This is a question relevant to a sport like baseball, which is indivisible from the myths and stories it engenders.
The Cactus League feels more akin to David James Duncan’s The Brothers K, in which baseball becomes the thematic shading for Duncan’s evocation of Vietnam-era America. Nemens has replaced the precariousness of the 1970s (draft dodging, stagflation, the Cold War) with the precariousness of the 2010s, trading Vietnam for the Great Recession.
Hence the move away from the mythological. The events of 2008 signaled, or should have signaled, the disintegration of an economic mythology that shares a few of baseball’s thematic preoccupations and ethical precepts, like the asymmetric compensation for identical work in the name of meritocracy and the promise of a glorious future contingent on right action.
American life is more like spring training, where the quality of life is worse but the stakes are significantly higher.
In this sense we can call The Cactus League a work of precarious realism, committed to the identification and illustration of precarious life in postrecession America, its simmering anxiety. This anxiety is shared by Nemens’s characters, who all teeter, in one way or another, on the edge of loss and ruin: a concessions vendor squatting in abandoned houses with her children, a middling pitcher concealing chronic arm pain, the elderly stadium-organ player who performs for poverty wages. One of Nemens’s primary observations is that life in post-2008 America consists mostly of these precarious edges. This is clear from the novel’s outset: the pervasive attitude of spring training, we are told, is a “feeling of uncertainty,” a collective understanding that “all is in flux . . . all up in the air.”
Not even the grizzled sportswriter-narrator is exempt from economic strain. Since losing his job, he cannot tell the stories in his usual fashion, in columns and newspaper features. Without his press credential, which he likens to “a second skin,” he is dislodged, neither in the story nor entirely outside it. Even his position indexes the reality of the recession, through a reference to the collapse of print journalism. The sportswriter has become a marginal figure, narrating a story about other marginal people that takes place, appropriately, at the marginal space of spring training. The sportswriter is forced to hang on, the words that open the final paragraph and capture the novel’s tentative orientation toward the future.
When dropped into a space of ruthless competition, hanging on is often all one can do, and The Cactus League understands this—which is why it takes place during spring training. After 2008, it became clearer that the arc of American life is not the arc of a baseball season, which culminates in the glitz of the World Series. Rather, American life is much more like spring training, where the quality of life is worse but the stakes are significantly higher. One plays not for a championship but instead for a job, for meals and mortgages. The aspiration isn’t glory; no one remembers who wins the chintzy spring-training championship.
The book’s focus on baseball, stadiums, and spring training also exemplifies how capitalism has affected our relations with land and space. On its first page the novel reads, “this is 2011, and the club cares about our natural resources,” hence the “environmentally sustainable xeriscape,” which requires little irrigation, lining the road to the stadium.
But this is corporate doublespeak that demands a feat of cognitive dissonance. Because the roadside landscaping is “environmentally sustainable,” there is no need to worry about the so-called sustainability of the sprawling team complex, its ryegrass outfield, or for that matter, the cities of Phoenix and Tucson. The novel mirrors this selective concern by moving, in the space of a paragraph, from the “sustainable” xeriscape to the fact that “it’s not easy to grow [outfield] grass like that in the desert.”
This pattern of economic and spatial displacement is made possible by Nemens’s recognition of the surprising but spot-on thematic congruence between spring-training baseball and the zeitgeist of the recession, especially its origin in overleveraged houses. Indeed, houses and architecture are nearly as important to The Cactus League as baseball, which makes sense; Nemens plays with the fact that baseball’s primary desire is to arrive safely at home. References to Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen appear nearly as often as references to baseball players like Lou Gehrig and Goose Goslin.
But while the novel does pontificate on the pleasures of good architecture (indeed, this is some of Nemens’s most agile writing, probably because the idiom of architecture is less exhausted than that of baseball), its foremost interest is the piercing or puncturing of domestic space. Throughout The Cactus League, houses and households are damaged and destroyed physically, relationally, and economically. There are instances of breaking and entering, squatting, and vandalism; ruptured marriages and dysfunctional families; failed subdivisions and barely afloat mortgages.
The same sort of financial speculation that defined the housing bubble, appropriately, is the fatal flaw of superstar Jason Goodyear. His gambling addiction is the state of American capitalism, its insistence on competition for the sake of competition, what the novel calls “seeking competition of any sort.” Jason is also the novel’s closest flirtation with the mythological. There is his name, of course, and the fact that both baseball teams and the classical Jason’s Argo are masculinized spaces. And both are constantly in the process of being remade; like the Argo, which gains and loses pieces yet abides, a baseball team, as it cycles through players, is always the same as, but also something more than, those on the roster at any given moment.
But despite its clever setup, the novel’s ending, which stages Jason’s pseudo-baptism as he pulls a child from a hot car (they are doused with cold water “like champagne after a pennant win”), feels less interesting. By narrowing its aperture onto Jason (and his famous-athlete gambling addiction), the novel closes on a note discordant with the broader, structural concerns its previous 300 pages investigated.
The Cactus League’s other difficulty extends from its experiments in technique. No other recent novel has been so self-consciously marinated in the linguistic tradition of its particular sport. Nemens redirects the wrung-out language of baseball to its outskirts and margins, fitting the thoughts and actions of those near, but not on, the field to the by now quaint phrases of sportscasters and coaches: an attractive woman turns heads “like a ninety-eight-mile-per-hour fastball,” a rundown bar is “fit for a minor leaguer,” and a hand “trace[s] the seam” of a shirt like a pitcher gripping a curveball. But this insistence on an exhausted vernacular can get, admittedly, a little exhausting.
Still, The Cactus League deserves to be lauded as a novel willing to take baseball seriously. It treats baseball as both a material and a narrative phenomenon, and the questions it asks readers are, unsurprisingly, material and narrative. What social function should sports perform? What is a novel supposed to do?
These questions are at least partly questions of attention. If the ritual significance of sports, for example, is the orientation of many people’s attention toward the same object, we might ask what that attention should do, or whether it should be aimed, like the novel’s eye, off the field. Likewise, novels are an invitation for the reader to direct attention in a certain way. Nemens suggests that in ideal cases, baseball and novels can help us attend to a sense of the precariousness—in the novel’s terms, the “uncertainty, the either-way of it”—we share with those to whom we are connected, which is essentially everyone.
This common recognition, the novel asserts, is urgently needed. We’re long past “wait till next year.” It’s time to, as it were, step up to the plate.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.