Book reviews

Christopher Beha’s The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (Tin House Books, 2020)

A good way to spend two days: read about the lives of rich and devoid-of-religious-faith leftists.

What a bunch of sad sacks!  What can you expect of Obama supporters and rich New Yorkers who care only about money?  Can anybody in the flyover states learn anything from these myopic, faithless people?

The answer, of course, is yeah.  The 517 pages of often lugubrious narrative can teach that men don’t have to follow in the footsteps of lost boys like Eddie Doyle, who is so gullible that he would give millions of dollars from his trust fund to a street preacher, or like Justin Price, guilty of insider trading so that he could become super rich and forget his origins in the hood.

Women don’t have to be little tramps like Margo, who want to commit adultery with married men like Sam Waxworth (what a great name, sounds like the wax character he is), or like his wife Lucy, a typical only child (of course) of Midwest academic liberals (of course), who is irreligious and has no idea what the sacrament of matrimony is all about.

Conservative and Republican readers will balk at the stupidity of many other characters who seem to be Democrats.  For example, Lucy’s political opinions show either her ignorance or the degree to which this novel merely comports with the typical New York liberal publishing crowd.  Thinking about her marriage prospects, Lucy “couldn’t imagine sharing her life with an actual Republican” (143), and she thinks the virulently pro-abortion and anti-American Obama was “reasonable” while President George W. Bush was “subliterate” (262-3).

But I digress.  Must be that I, a Midwest boy, can’t sympathize with these characters that much.  After all, a character who regrets losing out on $95 million in stock value doesn’t match the concerns of us ordinary Americans, who want to safeguard the financial gains made during the years of President Trump so that the exorbitant tax policies of the incompetent Biden don’t send us back to the dismal days of Obama.

Overall, though, reading fictional accounts of these rich and devoid-of-religious-faith leftists inspires sorrow for their ignorance.  Many of them come so close to understanding how faith works in human life, yet they are too blind to make the rational leap to faith.  The main character, Sam, an atheist who believes in “reason” and thinks religion is “irrationalism” (107), is so close to understanding the concept of Original Sin, but doesn’t see it: “So much of what was wrong with him was her [his mother’s] fault, he thought, but no doubt whatever was wrong with her had come from somewhere, too.  How far back did it all go?” (508).

Duh!  The competent reader of the twenty-first century, who knows his or her Jewish and Christian heritage, can answer that, but the novel ends with Sam remaining a lost boy.

Similarly, when attempting adultery with Margo (he remains flaccid throughout the episode), Sam says, “my body and my mind are crossing signals” (348).  One would think that Sam, the supposedly pure rationalist, would perceive that natural law is telling him something about the purpose of a penis (it functions as a tool for a husband to deliver sperm into his wife).

But that would mean that Sam would have read St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, several steps away in his spiritual journey that he is not yet ready to take (in this novel at least; maybe a sequel).

Sam isn’t the only character who is blind to religious possibilities.  Praying a decade of the rosary brought Kit Doyle and Marinela, her servant, “on equal footing” (240), yet Kit, like other members of the Doyle family, are nominal Catholics; they could not participate in Mass because “They were just so busy” (393).

Why read this book?  Of course, English undergraduate and graduate students will delight in seeing how various literary theories can be used to explicate and appreciate the novel.  For example, Justin’s same-sex attraction to Eddie meets the criterion that every novel now must have some gay and lesbian element.  Lucy’s leaving Sam will meet the feminist nonsense that a woman should leave her husband when he confesses having committed adultery instead of realizing that marriage is rough, tough—and sacramental.  Sam’s wish that the conservative man whom he hates (Frank Doyle) was his father will be better understood by masculinist literary theorists who pounce on anything dealing with father-son love, especially important now that millions of American men have “grown up” without a dad.  That Sam has a wet dream, in part thinking about Frank, just adds more ammunition to that theory: “He woke with a shudder just as the sticky dampness filled his boxer shorts” (123).

What a great line!  No wonder the book’s cover consists of some of Eadweard Muybridge’s still photographs of a naked baseball player.  This novel lets it all hang out.

OK, enough guy stuff. 

Granted, the novel depicts an ephemeral New York rich crowd with whom solid Americans in Lewiston, New York or McCutchenville, Ohio cannot identify, but, if one wants to take a break from fighting against Biden’s virulently pro-abortion policies and just read something mellifluous, then Beha’s work will satisfy that desire.

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