A Numbers-Cruncher Confronts Emotion and Other Unquantifiable Matters
THE INDEX OF SELF-DESTRUCTIVE ACTS
By Christopher Beha
Being a sports fan these days means having some kind of complicated relationship to analytics. Bill James’s nerdiness has gone mainstream. James was a part-time security guard who in 1977 started self-publishing a statistical baseball almanac whose influence eventually spread to every professional sports league.
It used to be that the kids who couldn’t run, shoot, hit or throw but loved sports had to content themselves with watching from the sidelines and telling stories afterward about what they saw — building myths. Now they can study math instead, and the kids who beat them at all those childhood games may end up turning to them to find out how to get better. The outsiders have become insiders.
Christopher Beha’s new novel, “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts,” draws its title from a Bill James metric, which measures “the total number of hit batsmen, wild pitches, balks and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.” But the phrase also refers to other, less sporting forms of self-destruction: infidelity and alcoholism, financial overreach, procrastination, plagiarism, sexual repression.
The novel opens with the arrival of Sam Waxworth in New York shortly after the 2008 crash. A math nerd, who made his name with a stat-based politics blog that successfully predicted Obama’s election victory, Waxworth has just been hired by The Interviewer, a venerable Manhattan magazine (recently bought up by a tech billionaire), to write an analytics column called Quantified World. He leaves his wife, Lucy, a special-needs teacher, back in Madison, Wis., to get set up in the city before she joins him later in the year. “The Young Man From the Provinces,” as the opening section is called, “had an opportunity at greatness, and he belonged in a place worthy of his ambitions. He needed to test his ideas against the world.”
His first big assignment is to interview Frank Doyle, a populist political commentator who has just been fired from The Herald (a version of The New York Times) for making racist comments during a Mets broadcast. Doyle’s politics have been drifting rightward for years. He supported the invasion of Iraq and generally stands for the kind of old-fashioned American things he thinks it has become unfashionable to support: democracy, free speech, keeping a scorecard when you watch a game.
Waxworth is looking for a quant angle on the racist “Ballpark Incident” to avoid the rut of the usual redemption story, but the waters are muddied by several awkward facts. His boss, Blakeman, is an old friend of Doyle’s son, Eddie, who has recently returned from his second tour of Iraq. Also, Waxworth grew up reading Doyle’s books about baseball (“The Smell of the Grass,” “The Crack of the Bat”) and fell in love with the game partly because of him. And finally, when they actually meet, he turns out to like the guy and finds himself becoming attracted not just to the whole moneyed and sophisticated Manhattan social scene the Doyles inhabit but more specifically to Frank’s daughter, Margo, a grad school dropout who has been trying to get over an affair with her poetry professor.
The circumstances drive Waxworth to work out his complicated relationship to analytics: Can you live a good life by basing all your decisions on measurable probabilities? Beha is excellent at establishing his characters as representatives of particular intellectual worldviews; he doesn’t have to pin them down because they keep trying to do it to one another. Doyle lets Waxworth into his house partly because he wants to take the fight to the statheads:
“The numerarchy ruled everything now. It had long ago taken over his wife’s world, the world of finance, convincing everyone that computer modeling could eliminate risk, an idea that had led to some of the most irrational behavior in human history and taken the whole economy down. It had half ruined the first love of his life — baseball — and now it had set its sights on the second — politics. These people were the enemy. How could he pass up the chance to spend nine innings with one of their kings?”
This quote gives an early hint of the novel’s ambitions because “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts” eventually grows into a much larger story about the fall of the house of Doyle and the various bystanders caught up in its collapse. Everyone turns out to be implicated. From Kit, Frank’s wife, who made most of the family fortune and then lost it in the crash; to Justin, the black scholarship kid who becomes Eddie’s best friend and a “second son” to the Doyles; to Eddie himself, who falls under the spell of a crackpot preacher whose apocalyptic predictions (proclaimed from the fountain in Washington Square) serve as a narrative frame: “What would you change if you knew it was all going to end?”
It’s an impressive performance. Beha, the editor of Harper’s Magazine, writes like an insider about a wide range of human experiences: campaigning for Mayor John Lindsay in the ’60s (“he is fresh and everyone else is tired”); getting a bikini wax; negotiating with the F.B.I.’s financial crimes unit; serving in Afghanistan; working as an E.M.T., as a special-needs teacher, as a journalist for a Manhattan magazine; and, of course, watching baseball. Sometimes the architecture of the plot seems grander and more elaborate than the story housed in it requires — about a family forced to re-evaluate itself as vitality shifts from one generation to the next. There are coincidences, chance encounters, faith healers, high crimes, medical emergencies and other disasters. The argument against analytics is really that there’s something human and elusive the numbers can’t account for, but the improbable here ends up scoring a lot of points.
There are also moving passages of carefully rendered points of view. As Frank wanders downtown, in a dementia haze, to his old desk at The Herald, where he doesn’t work anymore, the various plotlines begin to converge around him. And the scope of the book is part of its achievement. “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts” is the kind of long novel that begins to occupy its own time zone in your life: Like a trader who has to wait for some foreign market to open, you keep returning to this world, waiting for fresh news.
The article was originally published by Newyorktimes