Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha. (Tin House Books)
“Why do you need to tell lies about the world in order to make it beautiful?”
“The Index of Self-Destructive Acts” is a baseball term coined by Bill James that describes the total number of hit batsmen, wild pitches, balks, and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings. In other words, these are the things a pitcher does that works against their own team without the competing team doing anything. It’s total self-sabotage. And this is the idea at the center of Christopher Beha’s brilliant new novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts.
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is the kind of “dense” that I don’t mind reading. In fact, it’s the kind of bloat I love because everything Beha explores further fleshes out the world we’re inhabiting. Even when he takes us on a tangent, it’s in service to the characters and setting. It reminds me of the serious books people like to make fun of these days (in the same ilk as Jonathan Franzen), but when one like The Index of Self-Destructive Acts comes along it proves how good they can be and that it’s okay to fully invest in the serious endeavor of literature.
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a story about people making choices that ultimately bring hardship to their own lives, but they’re all too vain to admit they’ve done anything wrong. Like the title suggests, we’re witnessing a series of self-destructive acts.
Sam Waxworth is a statistician who designed a program to track and predict major league baseball. But after he made some bad deals that cut him out of the sports prediction business, he created a new program that perfectly predicted the 2008 presidential election. As a result, he’s hired to write for a national magazine and website in New York. This is where we pick up him.
Within the first month, Sam’s pushed to interview disgraced baseball writer and expert Frank Doyle. Their first interview session takes place at a baseball game, where we get to see both men watch a game they’ve been forced to enjoy outside a professional capacity. Through the connection between these two men, we enter into a perspective-shifting story where we get inside looks not only into Sam and Frank’s lives, but also Sam’s wife, and Frank’s wife and children. Their lives intermingle and as the year goes on the more complex their situations become, which is fascinating because of how easily all the pain could have been avoided.
Throughout The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, the characters work against their own self-interest to different degrees. They’re generally earnest in their actions, but from an outside perspective you want to reach into the page and shake them, yelling, “Isn’t it obvious that you’re making the wrong choice?!”
Throughout The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, the characters work against their own self-interest to different degrees. They’re generally earnest in their actions, but from an outside perspective you want to reach into the page and shake them, yelling, “Isn’t it obvious that you’re making the wrong choice?!” Beha adds small moments to continually reinforce everything the characters do wrong. There’s one point when Frank’s daughter Margo is sitting in her room thinking about how childish and infantile she seems, and, while she’s fighting against this image of herself, she sends a text to a friend, “Call me when ur out.” All her friends have jobs and lives, while she has locked herself in her childhood room in her parents’ house. It’s a quick moment, but one that shows an element of reality to the reader. The novel is riddled with these small moments, and through their culmination we’re given an emotional development that seems small, individually, but pulls a ton of narrative weight.
The sea change moments in The Index of Self-Destructive Acts aren’t huge or over-the-top. Beha found a balance where they’re realistic enough that we can see how these split-second decisions inevitably change the course of the characters’ lives and set them on a new path. Taking it a step further, Beha does a wonderful job showing the emotional implications involved per character. There isn’t a good guy, nor is there a bad one, and that’s the joy of a slice of life book like this.
Most of us are sitting somewhere in the moral gray area, but we’re still the protagonist of our own story. What makes the situations in The Index of Self-Destructive Acts so compelling is that we see them every day; but within a fictionalized version, we’re able to see the weight of these actions.
There’s two plot points in the third act when two characters have mental and physical breaks and find themselves in need of immediate emergency services. Then, it just so happens, the people arriving on the scenes are other main characters. This parallel between the stories pushed the suspension of belief too far for me because everything else leading up to these moments was so grounded in our reality. It is a historical novel, of sorts, and I saw our world mirrored perfectly up until this overly cinematic climax. Even having one of the main characters as the first responder in one of these scenarios would have been pushing it, so it was disappointing for me to see that happen twice at concurrent moments.
The shifting perspectives show great moments of mystery when we learn how wrong our assumptions were. We’re forced to question what we’ve seen and then forgive ourselves for the mistakes we’ve speculated. The circumstances create a friction similar to what we’d see in a suspense story and seeing them played out in a family drama is intoxicating in a way I never would have imagined.
Again, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a thick and dense novel, but these moments kept me reading at a ravenous speed. It’s one of the rare books I wasn’t waiting to end. I could have kept this on my side table and continued reading it forever.