Sports statistician Bill James invented a metric he calls “the index of self-destructive acts,” which assesses pitchers by averaging the number of hit batters, wild pitches, balks, and errors per nine innings. Harper’s editor Christopher Beha borrowed the phrase as the title of his 2020 novel. Baseball has a role in the story, but the character’s self-destructive acts don’t take place on the diamond. They occur in and around the homes of Frank and Kit Doyle, aging fixtures of Manhattan society and politics, during the early 2000s.
Everyone in the family circle makes terrifically bad decisions. A lifetime of heavy drinking finally catches up with Frank—public intellectual, provocateur, and Mets superfan—when he slurs a stupid racist joke while visiting the broadcast booth during a game. He refuses to take an apology tour, and so loses his job as a columnist at the Herald. Every open door slams shut, and Frank retreats to his home study, purportedly to work on his long-delayed book but actually to waste his days drinking and sleeping. When he stumbles out of the family's Bridgehampton home and into the rain one night, he stubs his toe, passes out, and spends hours in the cold and wet. He’s never fully himself afterward.
Sam Waxworth, a stats guru who predicted the outcome of the 2008 election in exhaustive detail, has just moved to New York from Madison, Wisconsin, to write for the Interviewer. He’s assigned to do a profile of Frank and gets enmeshed in the family. Before his wife Lucy arrives in the city, Sam falls into an unintentionally Platonic romance with Margo Doyle, Frank’s daughter, who has just exited an affair with one of her college professors.
Self-destructive acts compound. Eddie Doyle, just back from Afghanistan, falls under the influence of an apocalyptic preacher, Herman Nash. Frank’s wife Kit, a retired stock trader, acts too slowly and loses most of her portfolio in the 2008 crash. Investor and philanthropist Justin Price, Eddie’s best friend from childhood and an honorary Doyle, tries to help by giving Kit an insider tip. She invests money from Eddie’s account and makes a quick windfall, enough to keep the family solvent. But the tip came from an FBI informant, and soon a couple of agents show up at the Doyle home. Meanwhile, without telling Kit, Eddie empties his account to donate his money to Nash, who naturally disappears. To the FBI, it looks like Eddie’s scheme. It isn't, but to save her son, Kit gets wired up and records Justin confessing to all manner of shady dealing. Soon Justin is on the evening news in handcuffs and Kit is packed off for a reduced six-month sentence. Nash was right all along: At least for the Doyles and their circle, it’s the end of the world.
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is the Big New York Book of the 2020s, as Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities was for the 1980s. Both are New York-centered stories, with plots and characters that could have been ripped from the headlines. Wolfe’s weaknesses are also Beha’s. Like Wolfe, Beha doesn’t always write about people; colorful as they are, his characters are too often types, bearers of ideas and social trends, as Wolfe’s characters were bearers of styles and status. Sam, for instance, is the object of cartoonish satire, and his sudden transformation into a virtual disciple of Daniel Kahneman is too pat. The most poignantly human scenes involve Frank and Margo, and they are lovely, especially a late scene with overtones of Lear and Cordelia.
Beha’s book is more cerebral than Wolfe’s, and he tackles deeper questions. A recurring line from one of Frank’s books sums up one theme: “The things that can’t be proven are the only things worth talking about.” For Frank, it’s a baseball creed; he’s an old-school fan who scorns the moneyballers. Margo is her father’s daughter, and her conversations with Sam resemble Platonic dialogues, staged to debate a big idea. Sam’s a data guy who thinks everything is quantifiable and, therefore, predictable. She’s a poet who relishes mystery and ambiguity. Margo says love is about “losing control of yourself” and “obsessions.” To Sam, it sounds like “mental illness.” He reduces courtship to “a practical decision to pair ourselves off in mutually beneficial ways, to reproduce our genes,” concluding with a deadpan, “It seems completely explicable.” Beha’s stance on the question is never in doubt. After all, he published a novel, not a pie chart. He’s a champion of the unproven, of the things not seen.
Beha left the Catholic Church a few years ago, only to return when he discovered he couldn’t find compelling answers to his big questions anywhere else. I suspect the Sam-Margo debate records some of Beha’s own grapplings with reason and faith, and I suspect Frank’s Molly Bloom-esque internal monologue reveals another of Beha’s discoveries. Frank is haunted by the fact that, with his death, some memories will be lost forever:
Who else would know the smell of her [Kit] when he held her in his arms for the first time? Who else knew the particular play of colors that struck the eye when you stepped through the tunnel and the grass came into view on a sunny August afternoon in the middle of a pennant race? Who remembered the sound that a Spladeen made when hit squarely with a broomstick, the shiver that contact sent up your arms while you ran toward whatever parked Packard or Plymouth had been designated that day as first base?
If only someone were taking it all down: “If only there was a recording angel.” For Frank, it’s a false hope: “Nothing would be returned to us in the fullness of time, because time had no fullness. It was a constant emptying.” It’s a tormenting thought, and poses a stark choice: Either we find a way to believe in the fullness of time, or our lives will amount to no more than an index of self-destructive acts.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that the Doyle family home is in Westchester. It is in Bridgehampton. We regret the error.
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