First of all, great title: “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts.” It refers to a baseball metric that measures “the total number of hit batsmen, wild pitches, balks and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.” There’s a bit about baseball in this novel, but the focus is on other types of self-destructive acts committed by the novel’s cast of characters: infidelity, financial malfeasance, gullibility, addiction, plagiarism, hubris—you get the idea.
Christopher Beha’s social novel is reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen’s big novels, “The Corrections” and “Freedom”– long, eminently readable, entertaining, and containing a cast of characters each with a point of view in alternating chapters.
The time is 2009 with Obama in office and the financial world shattered. The Doyle family is featured. Frank Doyle is a columnist for the New York Herald (hint: NY Times) who is fired for making a racist comment about Obama, then sinks further into alcoholism. His wife, Kit, goes broke when her investment firm tanks in the crash. Son Eddie is back after two tours in Iraq and gets swindled out of his trust fund by a street corner preacher. Daughter Margo, a graduate student, is getting over an affair with a famous poet. “Second son” Justin, a Black scholarship student mentored by the Doyles, becomes an insanely rich hedge-fund dude.
That leaves Sam Waxworth, who wrote an algorithm that predicted the 2008 election and moves to NYC to write a profile of Frank Doyle, and Sam’s wife, Lucy, who comes from Madison to be with her husband only to find he’s been involved with Margo. Sam is later fired for plagiarism.
It’s a bunch of messy characters making messes of their lives because they act irrationally—like we all do at times. But these people make some incredibly dumb choices. The least interesting storyline is the biggest one: an insider trading scheme that leads to arrests and the downfall of the Doyles, but there’s enough going on in the characters lives to give the novel momentum and keep the reader turning pages.
The architecture of the novel—with alternating chapters for each of the characters—requires a series of unlikely and disappointing coincidences toward the end to converge the stories and the characters, but the novel remains entertaining beginning to end and full of insights about human behavior.
A favorite quote:
That is, 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.