The Cactus League
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020)
Heart of Junk
(Simon & Schuster, 2020)
Among the many challenges of life currently, one of the truly exhausting aspects—more than the incessancy of kids, the inability to engage in familiar distractions, the rote ceaselessness of the day-to-day, or the existential despair that that's really all life is, just day after day of dishes and distractions while hoping meaning presents itself—is the confrontation with self. Our old outdoor lives allowed for a distraction or distance from our actual selves, which distraction/distance allowed us to believe the stories we're building and living: that our lives are bigger than the punchline stereotype profiles we cut. No you say, I'm way more than a NIMBY, liberal, vegan indie-band fan with a weakness for John Hughes movies, yet confronted with your daily life limited to the size of your domicile, I'm guessing quite a few of us are left gaping at what turns out to be a fairly thin, fairly obvious selfhood, the sort someone could sum up almost humiliatingly quickly.
And then there's the question of how little it takes to move from type to stereotype. I write this currently as a 41 year old white male from the midwest listening to Bon Iver. Do I need to tell you I'm typing on an Apple computer, or that I bake bread? Do I add that I wear my grandfather's old turquoise ring? You know that. Buried at the heart of this question are the animating algorithms of most of our lives: are we really as easy to parse as Amazon/Netflix/Spotify believe we are? And, darkest, don't we all believe that deep down we're Not That? Isn't one of the fundamental aspects of being alive a sense that we're more than the sum of our tastes and experiences? That the chart of our existence does not follow some line that's preordained by past actions? Isn't the universal line in any argument No, you don't understand, because that's our dearest wish?
These questions arose while reading Emily Nemens's The Cactus League and Luke Geddes’s Heart of Junk. Both debut novels are broad, multi-character stories circumscribed within a fairly small framework in terms of time and locale, and both offer, in ways unrivaled by much recently, such welcome release and relief from the wildness of daily life that I'm bereft having finished them, even if neither was without flaw.
Geddes’s Heart of Junk is set in Wichita, Kansas from a Thursday through a Monday and centers around The Heart of America, a huge fictional antique mall. There are seven main characters, and each chapter identifies which one it'll be involved with. There's Lee and Seymour, a gay couple comprised of aging punk hipsters trapped by their collections of junk,who've only recently returned to Wichita because Lee's estranged mother left him her house, and whose relationship feels, at the start, as if it's run its course. There's Keith, the desperately over-leveraged owner of the Heart of America, and his sullen stoner artsy should-be-in-college daughter Ellie, desperate to get the hell out of Wichita except that she liquidated her college fund for sculptures. There's starchy, uptight, school-marmish Margaret whose devotion to rules and procedures makes her almost gleefully easy to hate. There's widower deltiologist Ronald and Barbie-obsessed Delores, each of whom are a bit one-note, easy enough to imaginatively unfurl.
Geddes does a great job illuminating the characters and their limitations, and while there's something delicious about a character living precisely within type—think of the binary, though significant, joys in watching films like Rocky IV —the drawbacks are several, and the one big strike against Heart of Junk was how simply the characters slot into established stereotypes. Stoned artsy teenagers and broke middle-class strivers, aging gay High Fidelity-ish snobs, crusty ladies unable to broach any deviation from The Rules (the sort who wouldn't say shit with a mouth full of it is how my midwest people describe them), weirdo collectors so sucked into the depths of their own obsessions the world doesn't even seem to register as it does for the rest of us: these all feel limited, limiting. Fundamentally, in lit terms, these are flat characters, impelled along understandable paths.
Again, Geddes does a fine job bringing these folks to life, but, for instance, there's little that is surprising or illuminating about Ronald's obsession with postcards, or the small TV studio he's set up in his basement, or the dog kennel put to very odd use quite quickly in the book. There's little surprising about Lee and Seymour—the folks I ended up caring about the most—the aging punks, relocated from Boston to Wichita, and whose relationship seems like it's only the right combo of drinks and friction away from finally exploding. There's something deeply comforting and familiar in such characters but it's an expectable pleasure, something you can see coming—which, given the lockdown and the sudden urge for reassuring pleasures, is maybe the highest possible praise.
Two events coincide to make these Wichitans worth tracking over a long weekend. First, Lindy Bobo, a young girl, has gone missing—a disappearance which is understandably rattling town. Second, Mark and Grant, a pair of TV personalities, are scheduled to bring their show Pickin' Fortunes to the Heart of America on Monday. As the novel opens, Mark and Grant are hedging, fearful how it'd play to record in a town in which a young girl's just gone missing, and so Lindy's disappearance quickly becomes causally related to the Pickin' Fortunes filming, which causally relates to everyone else's fortunes and dreams and hopes.
Keith has staked everything on the show turning around his and the Heart's fortunes. Lee holds out hope that appearing on the show will somehow resuscitate his long-dead music career. Margaret haughtily cares not at all for the filming, and Delores is already a well-known and well-regarded Barbie collector so needs the fluffing less, but still. We're offered excellent and excellently-written insight into each character, from Margaret parsing the difference between stuff and collector, to Lee realizing he's spent years listening to music he doesn't even enjoy but believes says something about him, to Delores, whose relationship with Barbie is so deep the dolls literally speak to her. To this reader, who has a fairly mild case of Collecting Tendency, there are clever insights about stuff and our relationship to it, and while the most alive parts of the book have to do with music and record collectors (Geddes founded a record label, and Lee's and Seymour's tastes here are mapped so thoroughly it feels impossible Geddes isn't writing from experience), there's something sweet in how these characters cling to or run from what they believe to be meaningful objects.
And so even though you know fairly early in the novel that Lindy will be found, and you know fairly quickly that—like Jorie Graham's poem “Prayer” argues—“Nobody gets what they want…What you get is to be changed," Heart of Junk is a satisfying distraction of a book. It's easy to wish Geddes would've allowed his characters to be more surprising, rounder, and less predictable, and it's certainly understandable to wish Geddes had offered readers more about what it feels like, as a collector, to have, to really want and then have that want met, however, his first novel offers plenty of satisfactions, and he's someone whose next work will almost certainly be worth paying attention to.
When I began The Cactus League, it was as appetite-whetting preamble to the Major League Baseball season that should be, as of today, months along. Were the season being played, we'd already have a narrative playing out, with what teams might end up contending in the postseason already making themselves clear. That, of course, is one of the elemental joys sports offer: they organize time, give heft to days passing, and make time's passing matter (i.e. a game won in April is just as important as one won in late September). And, like everything else, so much of baseball depends on the smallest details—from the microscopic adjustments involved in hitting a ball fair versus foul to the moment a ball finds its home in a glove for an out.
At the heart of The Cactus League is left fielder Jason Goodyear: All Star good, leading-man-handsome, aw-shucks, elementary-school-teacher marryingly grounded Jason Goodyear of the Los Angeles Lions (it feels hard not to read him as Mike Trout, but perhaps that was just this reader). Set in spring training (the Cactus League is, roughly, the half of the MLB who do spring training in Arizona; the other half's in Florida, in what's referred to as the Grapefruit League), each of the book's nine chapters is centered around a different character who connects with Goodyear: one of the Lions’ hitting coaches who, out to the Lions’ training field at night to take a few swings, discovers the star left fielder's been living at the facility. Goodyear's agent and the agent's assistant anchor the third chapter, getting Goodyear out of a jam he got into in the second chapter while out drinking with a woman named Tamara, a hanger-on, a player-chaser. One of the co-owners of the Lions, a family of squatters in one of the Scottsdale homes near the stadium the Lions practice at, a first-round draft pick: each has their chapter, and through each we get incomplete, compelling glimpses of Goodyear.
Goodyear's having a tough stretch, the details of which Nemens develops and plays out well, but which also—and this is no criticism of Nemens or her extraordinarily addicting book—simply don't matter all that much in terms of plot. What matters is that, in ways that are reminiscent of Heart of Junk, each of the characters in The Cactus League are in thrall to their own hungers in various ways, and these hungers animate the entirety of the book. Goodyear's got it bad, at the moment, for cards and gambling; the hanger-on he befriends and drinks with in the second chapter isn't simply some peroxide-cute on-the-decline lady, but is obsessed—compelled by might be better—with Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West. The part owner of the team's got to work out his public and private selves—which is an extremely broad way of painting it—but there's no sense ruining it.
These characters, resoundingly, are all round, fully developed, and the trick that makes the book so captivating is that, as anyone who has any compulsion or obsession knows, there's no why at the root of it that'll satisfy. Anyone who can't stop drinking can't explain why; same as anyone who can't stop running marathons or working out can't really explain it, either. We paste on terms—pleasure, escape, whatever—but ultimately it's all a sort of murky pursuit of what makes us feel most alive. That's all it is.
And while I in my basement have in common with the majority of characters in The Cactus League, I felt deeply connected to each, as Nemens allows them a full existence complete with half-glimpses of themselves and, most critically, with the ability to stretch and surprise themselves because that's what we're all looking for, in the ‘regular’ day-to-day of our locked-down lives currently, everywhere: we want familiarity mixed with the novel. We want what—and who—we've been to not be determinant. And Nemens's characters are precisely that, surprising and thrilling and sweet for how hard they try; for how their efforts—like most of ours—don't quite pay off as we'd expected.
There is, in The Cactus League, just one off-note, which comes as the voice of an announcer who preambles each of the chapters. He's got his own font, and he's recognizable, and while the essence of the trick—he addresses topography, how time transforms things, noting consistently how baseball is a long game, and how events from the start matter through the end—is fine, it's entirely unnecessary, like the moment in a film when someone seductively beautiful says “follow me,” as if anyone wouldn't. The criticism here is actually praise: Nemens's The Cactus League is strong beyond needing tricks, and both it and Luke Geddes's Heart of Junk are wonderful, necessary reads to remind you how infinite and wild other people can be. They are jolts to encourage you to hang in there until we can all get out again and wave to each other, wondering about everyone's story.