“The Cactus League: A novel”
The publishing info:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillian publishing
Released Feb. 4.
The review in 90 feet or less
Today would have been the final day of spring training. Tomorrow, the regular season was to start.
We grapple with that, as well as with the framework of baseball as an entry point non-fiction has historical successes mixed in with other questionable outcomes.
We dig the novel approach. But it depends on our disposition. And the author. And on what we’re trying to achieve. For example, Stephen King’s 2010 “Blockade Billy,” about the “greatest Major League player to be erased by the game,” got just more than 50 percent five-star reviews on the Amazon.com process, with an overall mark of four of five. We probably set the bar too high on expectations. We kind of sampled another last summer, with “The Proposal” by Jasmine Guillory, which uses a hook of how one those video-board moments at Dodger Stadium devolves into something that didn’t much hold our interest.
Finding a less-than-prickly way into “The Cactus League” started with catching wind of its inclusion in The Wall Street Journal’s “10 New Books You Should Be Picking Up First In 2020.” Then came a review in the L.A. Times by Kate Tuttle: “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.”
Cool. Grap a Cactus Cooler and we’re in.
Nemens, a 36-year-old first-time author and editor at the Paris Review, sets up nine somewhat independent stories – think of nine innings – that eventually interconnect around the Scottsdale spring training existence of the Los Angeles Lions.
It’s 2011, and the recession is still a thing. If you need a star player to pin any of this on, it’s outfielder Jason Goodyear, a recent American League MVP runner-up and Gold Glover. (It shouldn’t have one connecting dots to Mike Trout, if only because in this time frame, it would make Trout a 19-year-old, and Goodyear is divorced, addicted to gambling … naw, it can’t be).
Most is about his agent, the hitting coach, the fans, the ballpark staffers, the ones who chase players, the physical therapist … all their human frailties and desperation, trying to find a purpose and what defines oneself in survival mode.
An excerpt via the publishers’ website gets you into the first inning of work.
An author Q&A
What was the goal of your book and do you feel it was met?
Initially, I wanted to write about the subculture of spring training, but even more than that, to write about a community and an ecosystem that was at once contained but also big and wild and endlessly fascinating. But I recognized those interests were a bit sociological and leaning toward reportage, so I had it in mind to overlay that exploration with the imagined stories of people who care about baseball and the spring season, for a whole myriad of reasons. Basically, I wanted to write a book that did several things at once. I do feel I met that goal—it took a long time to get all the plates spinning, but I did it.
There’s a great piece by Vanity Fair about your new role at The Paris Review as editor since 2018. Has this new position helped shape this book in anyway, if only in how to get a book done, or what you wanted to accomplish?
I started the book in 2011, and sold it in summer of 2018, right when I was starting at TPR. So the vast majority of the work was done already, though I did a big last edit in 2019 — and that required really tightening my belt to be efficient about my time, given all the responsibilities of the new job. At that point in the process, being a strong line editor by day really helped my evenings and weekends of that last big manuscript edit.
Also, at 36, it’s young, but feels a little “late” for a debut novelist. I’ve been busy with my day job, and tremendously proud of what I’ve accomplished at The Southern Review and now The Paris Review — that work has slowed down my writing life somewhat, and that’s OK.
It took a while to get this right — I first finished a version of this book in 2015, but then took it back to figure out the structure, the casts, and the momentum. Though in another way, TPR did help shape this novel: One of the first books I read when I started out on this sportswriting endeavor was “Paper Lion” by George Plimpton. I loved it, and I think George would be tickled to know that I’m carrying on the tradition of sport literature in my own small way. (Note: Plimpton was one of three who started The Paris Review literary magazine in 1953, established in Paris but based in New York City since 1973. Plimpton edited the review until his death in 2003).
Also, the TPR softball is going strong
Did making this an “L.A.” team mean anything to what you’re doing here or just kind of a coincidence? There are going to be people in L.A. who try to connect dots: The L.A. Lions might be the Angels, and Jason Goodyear might be Mike Trout. No timeline would lend itself to that, but if readers do that, could that be detrimental to the story you’re trying to tell if they get too caught up in that?
Please don’t get too caught up in that! I picked L.A. less because of the Angels or the Dodgers or any players resembling Mike Trout, and more because it was driving distance from Arizona, and I wanted some people to be able to make that long and lonely drive. Also, because one theme of the book is about celebrity culture, gossip and tabloids, and I thought a team in L.A. would be more likely to intersect with that culture than one based in, say Kansas City.
When the Wall Street Journal and New York Times started creating buzz for the book, and then the L.A. Times published a nice review, how did you take that? Is it worth reading what others write about something that’s personal to you? Did any of the reviewers really nail it in your opinion?
I’ve gotten the good advice never to read reviews, but I read them, and I’ve been so grateful that they’ve been mostly positive. I don’t know that it’s that productive to spend too much time with them, but it’s great to know you’re connecting with readers, whether they have a platform of ten twitter followers or an audience of 100,000. I knew I was taking a bit of risk with the ensemble structure—the focus changes every chapter, which requires more work of the reader, and while there is a linear route through the book, there’s also a lot of swirl and changing lanes—and I was so relieved to hear that that structure resonated with people. I still get the goodread reviews of “Where’s the plot!?” and “The end is so unresolved!!” You can’t win ’em all.
Do you have any baseball novels in your collection you enjoy — “The Natural” by W.P. Kinsella, “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach or even “The Great American Novel” by Philip Roth?
I definitely loved and studied “The Art of Fielding” and “Pafko at the Wall”—the opening of Delilo’s “Underworld.” I never got to that Roth, unfortunately, and I know I read Kinsella, but it didn’t stick to my ribs for whatever reason. I did also love David James Duncan’s “Brothers K.” What a great book.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where is baseball on your sweet-spot meter? Does it bring back times of going to games with family members? (We’re just reading the acknowledgements and trying to connect dots on how you got into this subject based on your own connections with Mariners games or elsewhere)
I grew up watching a lot of Mariners baseball with my dad, and listening to a lot of games at home. We started going to spring training in the mid-90s — not every year, but often enough to make it feel familiar. I’m still a big fan, but not a rabid one… so what does that make me, a 7?
The other important thing to note about my age and geography (I grew up in Seattle) is I was in the perfect position to be a Ken Griffey Jr. fan. Imagine, 1989. He was a kid (19)! I was a kid (6)! He had the best swing in baseball! Getting to watch him for the first decade of my fandom was such a treat.
I have the MLB app and will check the Mariners scores, but living away from (and three hours ahead of) Seattle, I don’t often listen to games. It was probably 20 years ago—when I was still living in Seattle, when the team was really good—that I could name most of the roster from memory. I think my immediate interests have been pulled elsewhere (I’m more likely to be able to recite the best seller list than the highest batting averages) but I still feel very strongly for the game. In writing the book, I wanted to express a fan’s love, but also be honest and critical and candid about some of the game’s challenges, in its current iteration.
There’s another baseball-related novel called “The Resisters” by Gish Jen. Have you read it? Interested in how another female author has taken baseball as a platform to tell a story (even as wild as futuristic as this is)? How is baseball such a sport/thing that lends itself to a story vehicle?
I have read it — Gish and I actually did an event together earlier this winter. I admire the book, and think it’s uncanny we both arrived at baseball (and blue covers) at the same moment. Though I don’t think you could find two more different takes: Mine is realist and looking at the recent past, hers is dystopian and looking at the near future. They’re both enjoyable reads, and I think they share some commentary about the state of America and its historic symbols of strength. But they’re quite different otherwise.
How it goes in the scorebook
Same as what Hanks says … and …
Same here, Phil.
And one more:
One other thing we’ll agree with is a brief mention of a review from Publishers Weekly: “The sportswriter’s interstitial musings can be intrusive.”
Because, really, when did pulling in a sportswriter add to a work of fiction’s natural flow without getting in the way? It’s here because Nemens wants the device of letting a laid-off sportswriter-turned-detective to move the narrative from chapter to chapter and provide a tread of continuity. It works to some extent, but the intent is understandable.
We were also amused by another New York Times review that includes the comment: “Just how she comes by her baseball savvy is a bit of a mystery. This is her first book and Nemens, who is also an accomplished artist and illustrator and former jazz musician, has spent most of her career not in sports management or in a team’s from office somewhere, but working for literary quarterlies.”
Mystery solved, pretty easily: In the acknowledgments, Nemens thanks her Grandpa Rich for taking her games in Omaha, plus the “many, many seasons” Seattle Mariners’ spring training games in Phoenix with her dad, David.
If “The Cactus League” (a 4 out of 5 on Goodreads) can give us another way to see how baseball translates to another sort of genre, we’re always open for a wild pitch.