THE CACTUS LEAGUE
An explosive, character-driven odyssey through the world of baseball from Emily Nemens, the editor of The Paris Review.
Jason Goodyear is the star outfielder for the Los Angeles Lions, stationed with the rest of his team in the punishingly hot Arizona desert for their annual spring training. Handsome, famous, and talented, Goodyear is nonetheless coming apart at the seams. And the coaches, writers, wives, girlfriends, petty criminals, and diehard fans following his every move are eager to find out why―as they hide secrets of their own.
Humming with the energy of a ballpark before the first pitch, Emily Nemens’ The Cactus League unravels the tightly connected web of people behind a seemingly linear game. Narrated by a sportscaster, Goodyear’s story is interspersed with tales of Michael Taylor, a batting coach trying to stay relevant; Tamara Rowland, a resourceful spring-training paramour, looking for one last catch; Herb Allison, a legendary sports agent grappling with his decline; and a plethora of other richly drawn characters, all striving to be seen as the season approaches. It’s a journey that, like the Arizona desert, brims with both possibility and destruction.
Anchored by an expert knowledge of baseball’s inner workings, Emily Nemens’s The Cactus League is a propulsive and deeply human debut that captures a strange desert world that is both exciting and unforgiving, where the most crucial games are the ones played off the field.
Praise for The Cactus League
“[A] quirky first novel . . . [The Cactus League] showcases a fascinating gallimaufry of characters who swirl around the edges of the springtime ritual . . . Nemens finds a kind of attenuated hope along with melancholy in these sharply etched character studies that “end not with ‘out three’ but ‘out maybe.’'”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Emily Nemens’s magnificent debut is a masterwork of great empathy and detail, uncovering the realms of incredible pain and beauty enmeshed within every level of America’s pastime. If you love baseball, you won’t put it down, and if you don’t love baseball, you might by the end.”
―J. Ryan Stradal, author of The Lager Queen of Minnesota and Kitchens of the Great Midwest
“The Cactus League is not just another baseball novel. I can’t think of another book that so carefully examines the complex ecosystem of professional sport. With both compassion and objectivity, Emily Nemens deftly depicts the rich lives and stories that swirl beneath the ‘meaningless’ innings of spring training.”
―Chris Bachelder, author of The Throwback Special
Emily Nemens is the editor of The Paris Review. She was previously the co-editor of The Southern Review. Her work has been published in Esquire, n+1, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart and elsewhere.
Emily Nemens Recommends: The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
In the summer of 2018, for reasons of my day job, I was reading The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg (The Paris Review gave her our lifetime achievement award in 2019). I had encountered many of Eisenberg’s stories previously, but to read the twenty-seven stories that comprised her fiction to that point (three of the four previous titles were also published by FSG/Picador) back to back was a gift. Eisenberg’s stories were relentless in their beauty, smart in their style, and very generous in their lessons. This was how you wrote dialogue, this was how you entered in and out of scene (the doors were rarely, it seemed, where you expected to find them), this was how you distilled an entire world, a person’s past and future, into fifty pages. Her creations did not follow your typical story structure: how many times had I heard a story should write toward the fulcrum of an inciting incident, describe the incident, and then expound on how after said incident nothing would ever be the same?—as if the story was and could only be the single run and leap and flip of the gymnast’s vault. Eisenberg’s stories were an extended floor routine of many leaps and flips, a sequence that looked easy if you did not notice the details of the body’s tensile torque as it flew through the air, if you could not hear the squeak of the floorboards straining under a hard—and perfectly stuck—landing.
But my book, The Cactus League, isn’t about gymnastics—it’s about spring training baseball—and in summer 2018 I was embarking on my last big revision. I’d spent a whole year reading sports literature; I spent another thinking about structure with Winesburg, Ohio in one hand. But it was during that ninth-inning rewrite that I turned to Eisenberg’s stories. I examined their efficiency: I cut twenty-five thousand words, excising flabby clauses and unneeded beats. Their dialogue: I rewrote every exchange, more or less, of the book with the standard of Eisenberg’s pithy discourse egging me on (here I recognize I didn’t meet it her level, but oh, how I tried!). And their empathy. I’d already created my own cast of wayward characters, and had tried to treat them kindly, but I looked at them again with Eisenberg’s Collected in mind. What can vulnerability look like? What can it feel like? To understand another’s plight is a not insignificant step toward creating generosity—this is something I think about a lot, and Eisenberg clearly does, too. But more remarkable still was how her human scale of empathy was layered atop a sharp, sometime oblique, and always necessary commentary on the large-scale crises of human suffering… big things that are hard to look at straight-on in fiction, but things we must examine, nonetheless—as readers, as writers, and as a culture in the middle of its own inciting incident.