Jason Goodyear — there’s a prophetic last name — is the novel’s ostensible hero though Nemens, editor of the Paris Review, has crafted a panoramic portrait, centered on multiple characters in chapters numbered as innings.
Goodyear is the team star, “the best left fielder since Ted Williams,” model handsome with a golden arm, a generous heart and a withering addiction for the gaming tables. Does Nemens describe Jason as having “a Tom Cruise smile and Paul Newman eyes”? Yes, I’m afraid she does. Though, Jason’s remote character and outsize talent evoke Robert Redford in “The Natural.” Jason even uses his rocket of an arm to smash a towering light, albeit with a stone, not a bat and ball.
Nemens has written a story of baseball, topography and some architecture, the rare novel that ties the sport to Arizona’s tectonics and Frank Lloyd Wright, whose winter retreat Taliesin West figures prominently in the story. “Remember how I said this was a long game?” a baseball scribe directly asks the reader. He gets his say, in boldface type, in occasional chapters. “Let’s put it in perspective, consider the history of this place in geological time. Take a look at Salt River Fields’ cleat-pocked outfield and imagine this: the ground under Goodyear’s feet was once a sea, shallow and warm and dotted with coral reefs, clusters of orangey calcium deposits spread like neon ink-blots across the sea floor.”
The year is 2011. Why? Never explained except to ruminate, occasionally, about the housing bust and Obama as president. Perhaps Nemens intended to root her story in the past, even the recent past, to make “Cactus League” appear the stuff of history. Her reporter sounds straight out of “The Front Page” or Damon Runyon, a hard-boiled exterior but a center that’s all goo for the game. “That ‘no crying in baseball’ line is nice, but a load of bull: plenty of us walk around on the verge of tears. Goodyear, strong man that he is. . . . He’s on the brink of it every damn morning this spring actually, every time he wakes up and finds himself alone.” An agent refers to a grown woman as “kid.” A batting coach worships at the altar of Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. Nostalgia, not chew, is the sport’s dominant vice.
Nemens’s adoration of the game is infectious, and her novel is packed with winning details. On the aesthetic sell-by date of baseball wives: “These women are like friends from summer camp — rambunctious, beautiful girls who were briefly the most important people in the world but are now remembered in dull colors and with vague edges.”
Characters assume center stage — or home plate — for a spell, only to return for cameo turns. It’s a challenging approach to pull off, done more successfully in Julia Phillips’s glorious “Disappearing Earth.” 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.
Karen Heller is a Washington Post staff writer.
The Cactus League
By Emily Nemens
Farrar, Straus & Girous. 288 pages. $27.