‘The Index of Self-Destructive Acts’ looks at the ways people mess up

Christopher Beha’s latest novel wrestles with the complexities of self-destructive urges against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis.

Courtesy of Tin House Books
“The Index of Self-Destructive Acts” by Christopher Beha, Tin House Books, 517 pp.

Christopher Beha’s thoughtful and entertaining novel “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts” probes the intersecting lives of a small group of people in New York City caught up in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown.

The book’s title refers to a baseball statistic, invented by American baseball writer and statistician Bill James, which is the total number of hit batsmen, wild pitches, balks, and errors committed by a pitcher, per nine innings. Beha, a baseball fan, has taken this metric to give the reader a deeply readable, contemporary take on the spirit of the age in which we live.

“What makes a life?” asks protagonist Sam Waxworth when he first arrives in New York, “self or circumstance?” Waxworth – who in Beha’s story used statistical data to accurately forecast the outcome of the entire 2008 election – has been hired by the news outlet Interviewer to write a daily blog and column. His first assignment is to interview long-time baseball guru and prominent political columnist Frank Doyle, who has authored several books on the sport and has recently been fired from his job due to a “self-destructive” act.

Through Frank, Sam meets the other members of the Doyle family, which includes Kit, the family matriarch, who lost her investment bank to the financial crisis; Eddie, their son, recently returned from a second combat tour in Iraq; Justin Price, Eddie’s best childhood friend, who has become a successful hedge fund manager; and Frank and Kit’s daughter, Margo, a graduate student and aspiring poet. Waxworth’s wife, Lucy, comes on the scene later after moving from Wisconsin to join him. 

The action in the novel shifts from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the Doyle family’s summer home in the Hamptons and back again. Beha, a Big Apple resident, knows the territory well and his descriptions of both locations put you right into the scene. Sometimes the characters’ self-destructive nature is patently obvious to them – as when Margo and Waxworth seem headed to an adulterous relationship. Other times, the index is less harmful and is impelled by a charitable and self-effacing act like the one between Eddie and his newfound mentor, Herman Nash, a Washington Square preacher.

Deeper philosophical questions underlie this engaging narrative. Are we programmed to act by heredity, fate, environment, or just stubborn psychological traits? Or as one of the characters asks himself, “... why do we have to keep getting things wrong? If we really learned from our mistakes, shouldn’t we make fewer all the time? We weren’t just occasionally irrational. Something in us wanted to be irrational. Something wanted, perhaps, to be wrong. We hated nothing more than indisputable evidence, because we wanted to dispute. We wanted to take sides. We had more and more information, which ought to make our decisions better, but all we did with this information was find new ways to [mess] up.”

Beha’s pacing is smooth. I like the way he moves the reader forward in a page-turning mode and never signals any obvious turns. The characters are well-drawn and sympathetic. Importantly, there are implicit questions about where to place your faith – in money, religion, statistics, country: Questions that leave you thinking.

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