By David Canfield
January 31, 2020 at 08:30 AM EST
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Knopf Doubleday; Farrar, Straus and Giroux

If baseball became our national pastime by reflecting an outdated American ideal — a pastoral venue for competition, fairness, and triumph — it has remained, in fiction, fertile ground for insight into our country’s identity. At a time of profound political unease, two new novels find fresh ideas in one of the oldest team sports we’ve got. Indeed, they make it feel new.

Gish Jen manages this overtly in The Resisters, hurtling the sport into a harrowingly, bizarrely imagined future. The award-winning author (Typical American) has long had a feel for sweeping, subversive explorations of American life, so it feels inevitable that she’d find her way into the dugout. Her new novel centers on Gwen, a biracial teen coming of age in AutoAmerica: a nation that’s half-underwater, divided along class lines, and under constant surveillance. She lives in a sort of numbed survival state as part of the oppressed “Surplus” class, but has a secret passion: She’s a pitcher — a great one — and is thriving in an underground baseball league started by her family.

Baseball doesn’t have a place in AutoAmerica until the opportunity to beat ChinRussia (no one can accuse this book of subtlety) in the Olympics emerges. Gwen is recruited — she’s being watched, don’t forget — for her skills. Her ascension is true to the story of real American athletes, whose talents allow them (at the risk of exploitation) to rise from poverty. Jen reworks this narrative to up the stakes, but hands Gwen a familiarly harsh choice: to leave behind those who aren’t so lucky, to play ball for an entity that crushes them. As an old friend tells Gwen, “But you must admit: we’re specimens.”

This is not Jen’s wittiest work, but it holds a brilliant mundanity. Gwen’s father, a former professor, narrates the novel as if he were living today; there’s no sense of shock, even, at an anti-immigrant policy called Ship’EmBack. As Jen reveals how America became AutoAmerica, one seemingly tiny but cumulatively fatal development at a time, she finds in baseball a compelling metaphor for a country that will always have something to prove. “If baseball took on a hallowed meaning, it took on that meaning in our American dreams,” she writes. “For was this not the level playing field we envisioned? The field on which people could show what they were made of?”

Her dystopian scope contrasts with that of The Cactus League, Emily Nemens’ wise debut. Yet Nemens’ milieu — spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz., circa 2011 — affirms The Resisters’ timely quality, reinforcing the sport’s cultural primacy. After all, sharp divisions persist in this depiction of a desert community post-2008 crash. The Cactus League is framed by a sportswriter’s story about Jason Goodyear, a Major League superstar whose life is slowly falling apart. Rather than interview Jason, however, the writer crafts a portrait by talking to those around him — wives who gather for “luncheons and spa days, cocktails and color consultations”; agents holding disturbing secrets; groupies resembling Susan Sarandon’s iconic Bull Durham character, drifting from player to player.

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. The home runs and strikeouts may be background noise, but they’re ubiquitous all the same. They’ve defined this community — its heartbreaks, its victories, its changes. They’ve created a world.

The Resisters: A-
The Cactus League: B+

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