In an interview with The Atlantic, author Celeste Ng described her work using another book that will be very familiar to any parents out there: Goodnight Moon. The comparison seems odd at first, but the way the book “teaches you to look twice” is a beautiful way to describe a good book. The Cactus League by Emily Nemens unfolds slowly, with the narrator telling you to expect as much right in the preamble, but as it unfolds, it forces you to look twice, to see what you might have missed in a previous chapter and reassess your thoughts about where the book is going. With keen attention to detail and meticulous plotting, the book delivers an engaging story that makes the reader want to burn through the pages.
Not a baseball book per se, The Cactus League centers around a former MVP, Jason Goodyear, reporting to spring training for the Los Angeles Lions. An intrepid reporter with time to spare, thanks to cuts across the newsroom, finds a story in the outfielder’s return to the game—actually nine stories. The book is divided into innings, like a baseball game, with each inning devoted to a person in Goodyear’s orbit. It’s not always clear how the individuals fit into the story at first (especially in the first), but as the story goes on it becomes clear. To extend the Goodnight Moon metaphor, the individuals in each inning are the objects in the room and it takes the full 270 pages to get the full picture and know the story of Jason Goodyear.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Cactus League for me was the range of characters from each inning. There are grandparents, closeted gay men, ballplayers (of course), children, divorcees, and each is going through something different—drug addiction, poverty, abusive relationships, and so on. It’s no small feat that Nemens makes each of these individuals feel real, that their experience seems authentic and not contrived. The book and it’s diverse cast of characters are a great reminder of the vast life experiences of those in the game of baseball and living on the fringes of the game, a reminder that even though we feel like we know the story of whatever star we love most, there is a whole lot going on around that person that we may never know.
While The Cactus League is a bit of a thrill to read, a tight 270 pages that feels like less, often I was left wanting more. The stories surrounding the life of Jason Goodyear are as interesting and exciting as the main character, if not more so; but Nemens’ writing likes to leave quite a bit to the reader’s imagination. While the author writes adeptly about many things, expressing great knowledge on geological history, architecture, opioid abuse, and lingerie parties, the stories running parallel to the main story sometimes feel unfinished.
Even the main story and how Jason Goodyear’s saga comes to a close leaves a bit to be desired. After humming along with all the energy of a base stealer, the book comes to a halting end. A bit more denouement, a little more resolution for Goodyear, if not the other characters in his sphere, would have made the book even better. It’s hard to find too much fault in Nemens’ debut, though. The Cactus League is a fun book that is certain to entertain baseball fans and fiction fans alike. Maybe it won’t get Nemens a Hulu adaptation, like Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, but it is certainly a promising start.