Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Index of Self-Destructive Acts: Never Underestimate Your Ability to Screw Up

If you've read your Bill James, you'll know "the index of self-destructive acts" is a humorously titled baseball statistic referring to the number of ways a pitcher can screw up, independent of anyone else on the field — it includes, balks, hit by pitches, wild pitches, and others. 

In baseball, as in life, one should never underestimate one's ability to screw up. And that's what Christopher Beha's long but satisfying novel is about: How self-destructive acts, however innocuous, unintentional, or insignificant, can really put a damper on one's happiness, success, or ability to stay alive.

A huge cast of characters living out a seemingly endless number of plot strings and themes make this novel feel almost Tolstoyian. (This is only 520 pages, though.) And even though it takes place over the course of about six months in 2009, it feels completely in the now — examining many of the themes and ideas that define our modern lives. 

Sam Waxworth, if there's a main character, is it. He's a "data journalist" — a new thing in 2009, so think a slightly hipper version of Nate Silver — who correctly predicted the 2008 presidential election. As a result has been hired away from his Madison, Wis., home by a prestigious NYC magazine to write a blog based on math, data, and numbers science. He's also expected to write features, and his first big one is about the disgraced writer and baseball man Frank Doyle.

Frank has been a lifelong liberal and influential baseball writer, but he's recently been turned into a conservative hero because of his staunch support of the Iraq War — think a more boisterous, booze-soaked version of George Will. Even before the novel started, Frank had already delivered the first of many self-destructive acts — at the last game at Shea Stadium in 2008, after way too many beers, Frank joined the TV broadcasters for an inning of commentary, and wound up delivering an enormously offensive racist remark about Obama. This got him cancelled — he was fired from his column at a New York newspaper and basically became persona non grata in the upper-crust NYC circles to which he'd become accustomed.

So now, six months from the "Ballpark Incident," Waxworth's editors think it'd be interesting to check back on Doyle to see how he's handling his "demotion." Waxworth had been a Doyle fan, read all his baseball books, but in his piece, he plans to bury Doyle. This will not be a redemption story. 

So Waxworth and Doyle's careful dance, as well as each's own problems (Doyle, his booze; Waxworth, acclimating to NYC and being tempted to stray from his wife by, of all people, Doyle's daughter), are the framework of the plot of this novel. The rest is about the supporting cast, which is huge, Doyle's kids, Waxworth's wife, Doyle's wife, Doyle's kids' friends, a street preacher, and many more. In some way or another, they all seem to collide with each other, taking turns committing their own self-destructive acts. Eventually we fall into a rhythm with each chapter told through the eyes of a different one of these characters, often showing an event we've already seen, but from a new perspective. 

Needless to say, this novel is a lot. Though strongly plot-driven and at the mercy of the machinations of its characters, this is also a big, rich novel of contemporary ideas. What is more valuable: hard data, statistics, science or our gut feelings and what we fervently believe (even absent evidence)? But also, what role does art or poetry (or just artistry, like an objectively beautiful curve ball or left-handed swing) play in an increasingly empirical world? And perhaps most critically, what point do we choose self-preservation over loyalty and/or simply the right thing to do?

This novel was recently named to the National Book Award longlist, a bit of a surprise — it's a small press novel (Tin House!) with a meager readership so far (it only has 240 Goodreads ratings — but that'll certainly improve because of being named to the NBA longlist). I took a chance on it because I'll read just about any novel with a baseball angle. And while frankly baseball winds up playing only a small role in this huge novel, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm going to miss these characters, even the ones who did terrible things to each other. 

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