Nemens, editor of the Paris Review, demonstrates deep knowledge not only of baseball but also of American desperation ... Nemens has a keen eye for detail, from the semi-feral unfinished tract homes in a suburban subdivision to the glittering routine of the players’ wives ... She’s brilliant with lists and with compression. Whole worlds are sketched in miniature ... With her sharp eye for the details of unremarkable lives, Nemens at times reminds one of Joan Didion ... 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.
... less a novel, really, than a series of very cleverly interlinked short stories ... Bad writing is hard to do entertainingly, and while some of this stuff is sort of funny, much of it is just tiresome — Nemens’s one serious misstep ... what really sustains the book is not so much the interweaving as Nemens’s capacious, cleareyed understanding, which goes way beyond that of the casual fan, and her evident sympathy for her characters. Or most of them ... Unlike her sportswriter character, Nemens really does have a long view — or, better, a wide one — and in The Cactus League she provides her readers with what amounts to a miniature, self-enclosed world that is funny and poignant and lovingly observed ... all rings true, in part because it doesn’t try for extra bases, so to speak. Unlike a lot of baseball books, it doesn’t traffic in myth or metaphor or larger meaning. Baseball is never more than just a game here. Or, rather, a business disguised as a game — one that will nevertheless break your heart.
Some might consider this a risk in a book ostensibly about baseball, but it’s one I applaud, and not just because in a three-page stretch Nemens successfully references Snuffleupagus, Dostoevsky, Charlie Hustle and the long-ago migration of people across the Bering Strait ... It tempers the grandiosity inherent in baseball and implies that games have always been an important part of being human ... The story arc that follows Goodyear and his troubles is engaging in its own right, but The Cactus League wasn’t intended to be a heavily plotted book, or one in which the heroics of a star cause outfield lights to explode ... Its many pleasures come from spending time with Goodyear and the others whose lives connect to the game, and from pondering how the dramas of everyday life and the imperatives of professional sports influence each other.
... [a] wise debut ... Nemens makes a few first-novel mistakes: Analytical interruptions by our journalist narrator never fully gel, and a few conclusions reached about the mythic star in question feel undercooked. Hers is also, at first glance, a most unconventional baseball novel. These character studies unfurling under the hot Arizona sun interlink, chapter by chapter, like the ones in Elizabeth Strout’s Maine, and the action off the field is of far greater interest to the author. Yet that’s why The Cactus League speaks so strongly to baseball’s enduring vitality.
Nemens’s adoration of the game is infectious, and her novel is packed with winning details ... I would have gladly read an entire novel about dyspeptic agent Herb Allison, who seems more present than self-thwarting Jason. It’s as though, like his position in the ballpark, Goodyear remains at a distance, always out there in left field.
To a one, the stories contain minor moments of transcendence, dazzling excavations of psychological and emotional realization ... The narrative frame of The Cactus League occasionally enables Nemens to marshal the novel’s sprawl, with the sportswriter interspersing recurring thematic threads that might be too difficult to weave in otherwise. Yet too often the sportswriter’s sections break the spell of an otherwise spectacular read. He leans into abstraction...waxes poetic about inconsequential ideas, and traces the geological history of Arizona, trying to force metaphoric meaning ... Luckily, the sportswriter occupies only a sliver of page space. The Cactus League shines brightest as a novel in linked stories, all nine of which are frequently excellent and superbly written ... When Nemens dramatizes baseball, her prose sings ... Despite the unrealized presence of the sportswriter, The Cactus League is an often captivating debut novel that sparks new life into Barzun’s belief that baseball is an irreplaceable portal into the heart and mind of American life.
You don’t have to enjoy baseball to find this semi novel-in-stories a richly layered, often tender and generous, exposé of the life of players, fans, and everyone in between ... gives the story the same held-breath sensation of waiting for a first pitch to be thrown—you think you know what’s going to happen, but don’t get too comfortable ... While I was trying to find footing with the characters and their stories, hoping to follow them through their own arcs, I should have been paying attention to the larger role they play in relation to the city, the game, and the environment ... At times [the wives'] surface level lives feel clichéd and weak on a writing level, but the nature of their husbands’ careers supports their flighty behavior—they all know they could be upended from their routine at any moment, contract or no. This reality allows for sympathy when we might otherwise wrinkle our nose at their choices ... in between all of these well-rounded narratives is the pestering sports reporter we met at the beginning, belaboring metaphors of evolution and succumbing to digressive stories. The concept of this narrator having a bird’s-eye view of Scottsdale and the Lions is an interesting one that ultimately didn’t land for Nemens. Instead, halfway through the book, his interjections become clunky and sometimes unwelcome ... There is more to this book than the best sports reporting: peeling back the curtain, examining the people behind the statistics, and understanding that sometimes the most crucial plays are the ones happening off the field.
What Nemens does in The Cactus League --- and brilliantly so --- is to describe the quietly desperate lives of the various characters and invite the reader to find not only empathy with them, but communion as well. What the characters have in common is a sort of low-frequency anguish, like background static from a far-off baseball broadcast, ever-present but insistent. Nemens takes this anguish and illuminates it, bringing a degree of grace to their struggles. And the superstar left fielder around whom all of the other characters rotate is not immune to that himself, as we learn ... not what you would call a hopeful book, but it manages to be all the better for it.
... may be placed near the top of the many lists of The Ten Best Baseball Novels ... If you have been to Talking Stick you will fully appreciate Nemens’ descriptive powers. If you have never been to spring training, The Cactus League offers total emersion into the physical and geographical setting of the desert with its intense heat of the afternoon sun and chill of the desert after sunset ... Nemens captures the culture of the team both within the clubhouse and beyond, particularly the world of baseball wives, sweethearts, and groupies....rich territory for an exploration of human relationships and their complications ... When the implosion arrives at the intersection of Jason’s crisis with that of others in this tale, the narrative feels a bit strained and manipulated. This is not a fatal flaw, but is a bit disconcerting and detracts from the overall quality ... Nemens is a skilled writer who captures the many dramas and nuances of spring training. She moves this story with a command of both prose and plot. Her eye for detail is sharp, and her ability to pass on what she sees is excellent. This is a book worth reading, and then reading again. It is a perfect antidote for those who recently watched as spring training abruptly ended and Opening Day slipped away.
...follows a series of characters connected to professional baseball ... We get inside their heads, one by one, and watch as their stories gradually and gracefully converge under Arizona’s cool, late-February sunshine — a complex structure that Nemens makes look as easy as a major leaguer nonchalantly catching a line drive.
... quirky ... a multipronged story that showcases a fascinating gallimaufry of characters who swirl around the edges of the springtime ritual ... Spring training is, above all, a time pregnant with possibility, but Nemens shrewdly focuses on those struggling to hang on just a little bit longer, the annual opportunity for renewal—signaled by the smell of a freshly mowed infield and the sound of a crisply struck line drive—dimmed by everything from Tommy John elbows to one too many facelifts. And, yet, 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.'
It’s obviously a great book for baseball lovers, but I think it can appeal non-sports fans as well. Baseball is what drew me to the book, but it’s the individuals and their stories that kept me engaged right through to the end.
This first novel is a beautifully realized meditation on the complex, uncertain nature of daily life ... Nemens’s knowledge of the subtleties of baseball complements her philosophical content in powerful ways ... A triumphant debut; enthusiastically recommended for fans of literary fiction and great sports writing.
The sportswriter intersperses each chapter-length character study with his own digressive musings about everything from Goodyear's motivations to belabored geological metaphors for the draft. Unfortunately, this frame narrative for Nemens' ambitious, sprawling, and otherwise impeccably written debut is an often clunky and frustrating misdirection. Although the sportswriter insists readers can understand Goodyear's inner workings by examining peers, colleagues, and characters on the periphery, he never bothers to tell us how these character studies shed light on the star player. As it turns out, Goodyear isn't really at the heart of this book at all. He's a premise rather than a true-blue character. It's a strange choice on the part of Nemens, who created a narrator uniquely situated to deliver on his initial promises—or subvert them openly and purposefully. Nemens has instead written a novel about baseball and how it shapes the lives of athletes as much as the town that supports it—and a beautiful one at that ... Like the best sportswriting, this bighearted, finely observed novel is about far more than the game.
... insightful ... Largely plotless, the book is a vivid collection of stories, as each character is brought to life in convincing detail, though the sportswriter’s interstitial musings can be intrusive. Still, this debut entertainingly illuminates people and problems usually overlooked in the sports pages.