These novels put a literary spin on the sport of baseball, recognizing its metaphorical resonance.
The best works of fiction are often about much more than their ostensible subjects. Novels like The Natural by Bernard Malamud and The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach may be set among ballplayers, but the richness of these works lies in their nuanced depictions of ambition and despair. Gish Jen’s The Resisters and Emily Nemens’ The Cactus League have very different perspectives, but they both deal with insecurity: about work, aging, and, especially in the first book, life.
The more experimental of the two, The Resisters is a dystopian work set in the near future, and it uses baseball to comment on the ease with which totalitarianism can overtake a country. America is now AutoAmerica. The populace is divided into the “angel-fair” Netted—whose job is to produce—and “copper-toned” Surplus, lesser folk whose job is to consume. Among the latter are Grant, the book’s narrator; his wife, Eleanor; and their only child, Gwen.
Eleanor’s work as a lawyer got her in trouble with the AI-run surveillance state known as Aunt Nettie. She has recently returned from jail, but she risks further incarceration by taking a case against the government’s use of a winnowing agent, put into foods to weaken the Surplus. But the government is mainly interested in Gwen, a pitching prodigy so talented that, as a baby, she hit the same spot on the wall every time she threw stuffed animals out of her crib.
Motivated by plans to build a TeamAmerica that can defeat ChinRussia in the Olympics, Aunt Nettie’s scheme to recruit Gwen from the Surplus’ underground league gives the book its considerable tension. Detailed world building slows the story down, but The Resisters is still a chilling critique of capitalism and a warning about how governments can exploit inequality for nefarious means.
Insecurity is also a driving force behind The Cactus League by Paris Review editor Nemens. A more conventional work, this book’s linked stories revolve around Jason Goodyear, two-time MVP for the Los Angeles Lions, as his team arrives at its new spring training park in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Goodyear’s narrative role, however, is more utility player than star. He appears only peripherally in these stories, most of which focus on the people around him. Among them are young players wondering if they’ll make the opening-day roster, veterans fretting that they’re past their prime, middle-aged women trying to seduce young players, even elderly organists scrounging for gigs. Nemens breaks up these stories with musings from a sportswriter keen to get the scoop on the clean-cut, enigmatic Goodyear.
The device of the sportswriter as a sort of one-person Greek chorus is unnecessary. More compelling are the stories themselves, which culminate in a depiction of Goodyear in apparent decline, dealing with a divorce and reduced to living alone in a cinder-block building on the stadium grounds.
In Summer of ’49, David Halberstam wrote that young boys who dreamed of baseball careers were enthralled by the “binding national myth” of the game. As The Resisters and The Cactus League demonstrate, the myth endures, but what a fragile fantasy it can be.