Living the Unexceptional Life

Christopher Beha’s newest novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, provides an arresting meditation on the Tocquevillian theme that social mobility in the U.S. undermines national happiness rather than enhances it. In aristocratic society, Tocqueville argues, the aristocrat disdains pursuing wealth because, like the air he breathes, it’s always there. And the poor disdains wealth because he knows he can never have it, and so does not bother fruitlessly to covet it. In America, however, “when the ranks are mixed together and privileges destroyed, when patrimonies are broken up and enlightenment and liberty spread, the desire to acquire well-being presents itself to the imagination of the poor person, and the fear of losing it to the mind of the rich one.” The possibility of mobility stokes desire for gain among the poor and stokes fear of loss among the rich. The result is an obsessive focus on material gain among all classes of Americans. This is not a happy outcome, for the American soul “attaches itself” to this materialism with the result that this love “obscures the rest of the world” and even comes “to be placed between it and God.”

Tocqueville described the America of the 1830s. The world of New York City circa 2009 that Beha pens is a world of restless materialism on steroids. Beha narrates a story of the ordinary, work-a-day world of the New York neo-liberal elite. Both those who already rank among the elitehowever precariously—and those who aspire to join this elite. This world is not about only money. But it definitely circles around money. Those who desire it will be ruined by their desire. Those who scorn it will lose it, but in doing so will save their souls.

The countdown for the unveiling of the characters’ souls starts on the first page. Herman Nash, a religious character almost worthy of Flannery O’Connor-like grotesquerie, preaches from the rim of a fountain in Washington Square that the world will end a few months. Nash in fact knows the exact date and time: It will end on November 1. At 10 p.m. Nash calls this the “Great Unveiling.”

Worlds do end in Beha’s novel, just not the physical world. Rather the hidden worlds of the major characters become unveiled. As the sage preaches elsewhere, “There is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and nothing hidden that will not be known.” The story narrates a personal eschatology for each of the characters, mainly for the worse, but better for a few.

The story circles around the destruction of the Doyle family and of several who intersect with it. Frank Doyle, a long-time liberal newspaper columnist, turned neo-conservative after 9/11. He was recently fired by his newspaper for a failed joke on a radio broadcast about Barack Obama that drew on racist tropes. Frank thought his long liberal record on race relations would save him. It did not.

In his desperation to remain relevant and successful—to avoid losing what he built over a career—Frank accepted a sizeable advance from his publishers to write a book that would vindicate and redeem him. He goes into his home office every day to write. Or so he tells everyone. He does not write, however. He only drinks and watches baseball on TV in his office. This may result from the dementia that slowly advances on Frank during these months. But it may also be that Frank had a career as a columnist. He knew how to write 650-word commentaries; he does not know how to write an extended tome. There is no magnum opus to be unveiled. And the publishing firm is demanding the return of the advance.

Kit Doyle, Frank’s wife, recently sold her family’s multi-generational brokerage firm. This provides them with a nest egg of some $9 million dollars to support her retirement and the family in affluent comfort. This money of course comes on top of Frank’s salary and book contract. Upon selling the firm, however, Kit deposited the money—all of it—with a financial institution that went belly up the year before. (Recall the crash of 2008.) She lost all the money when the bank’ collapsed. She hadn’t told Frank—she was the money manager for the family, after all, and Frank left all those decisions entirely in her hands. Besides, she knew that Frank’s income and book advance provided a safety net to support their elite lifestyle. But both of those were subsequently lost as well.

In Kit’s desperation to maintain their social position, she looks to make quick, albeit illegal, money from an insider tip passed to her by a family friend, and does so using her son’s (Eddie) trust fund as the capital. But her action does not remain veiled. Not only does the FBI learn of the insider dealing—resulting in Kit’s short-term imprisonment, as well as her ratting out the family friend—but her son, not knowing of Kit’s activities and not wanting the trust money (because he didn’t earn it to begin with), decides to give all the trust away. (The preacher, Herman Nash, ironically absconds with almost all of Eddie’s money.)

Frank and Kit’s shortcuts ensure that they will rotate out of their elite status. Was this due to “self or circumstance,” Beha has one of the characters ask early in the novel. Or is it self and circumstance? Irrespective, their actions that attempted to cling to what they had bring about the very thing fear: They lose it all.

Intersecting with Frank and Kit’s life is Sam Waxworth, a recent University of Wisconsin graduate and a number cruncher who hit it big by predicting accurately, if luckily, the Electoral College count in the 2008 election, as well as all of the winners in the Senate, the House, and state governors. From his small-time blog, Sam has been brought to New York city as a star writer for the online version of a magazine called the Interviewer.

Sam has a desperate desire to succeed. Sam comes from a broken home in a lower class or lower-middle-class background. He’s hungry for success. His deepest desire in getting to New York City is that “He wanted to belong in this place.”

Yet Sam, too, wants a quick return. He takes on additional writing opportunities that he does not need to and that he really doesn’t have time for. As a result, he cribs from his earlier blog posts from the small-time blog he wrote from Wisconsin. This gets noticed by his readers and his editor – it is unveiled. His negligence gets him fired, and he ultimately returns to Wisconsin in disgrace. The sheer intensity of his covetousness prompted the precipitate actions that cost him the very success he desired.

So, too, with a young family friend of Frank and Kit named Justin Price. Justin comes from a lower class or lower-middle-class African American background. Frank and Kit serve as his patrons from his childhood. Initially out of college, Justin worked for Kit in her brokerage. While he did well for himself working for Kit’s small shop, success did not come fast enough for Justin. He jumped to a bigger firm with bigger rewards. The firm has a reputation for cutting corners. Justine made his fortune—a huge fortune—albeit by exploiting his friends and acquaintances. He earned so much that he retired by age 35, and devoted the remainder of his life and fortune to serving the African American community.

At the very least, Margo opts out of the restless materialism of her parents and peers. She opts instead to follow an aristocratic pursuit, even as she needs to sacrifice economic success to do so.

But laudable end-goals do not veil the means. His precipitate rise did not come without costs. By the time of the Great Unveiling, Justin is headed to prison for several years because of the insider tip he passed onto Kit. It turns out that the tip was planted by the FBI in an attempt to get Justin to turn on his even more crooked boss. Unfortunately for Justin, he didn’t know enough to rat out his boss. So he ends up taking the fall.

The possibility of social mobility, whether up or down, for each of these characters caused their downfall: The fear of decline for Frank and Kit, the coveting of rise for Sam and Justin. Their materialism destroys their families and friendships. Beha provides us with a meditation of sorts on the sage’s question, “For what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his soul?”

Yet the outcome is not grim for every character. Several reject the fear and temptations of social mobility. The unveiling for them means the unveiling of lives of meaning and worth, albeit, these are humble lives.

Frank and Kit’s son—Eddie—a lost and broken Iraqi vet (mustered out of the Army for killing an attacker unauthorized by the rules of engagement) is somehow touched and affected by Herman Nash and his message. There is no dramatic conversion. But Eddie can’t help being drawn to Nash despite Nash’s eccentricities. Eddie follows Nash home, and is ultimately baptized by Nash in his cramped apartment bathtub.

Eddie determines to give away the $3 million trust fund left to him by his grandfather. The desire precedes his religious conversion; Eddie never tapped into the trust fund because he hadn’t earned the money. (Kit thought she could use the capital of Eddie’s trust fund to earn enough to cover Frank and her obligations because she was the trustee and she knew that Eddie never touched the trust fund. She didn’t know that Eddie had resolved to give the money away.)

At the start of the process of giving away the money, Eddie gave Nash legal access to the account. Nash soon disappears with all the money. This chagrins Eddie a bit, but only because he wanted to spread the funds more broadly among the needy. Eddie rolls with the loss because he wanted to get rid of the trust fund anyway.

While a Cornell University grad, and a successful executive before enlisting in the military after 9/11, Eddie turns his back on the fast track. He joins the working class as an EMT, with the goal ultimately of working up to becoming a paramedic. That’s Eddie’s deepest desire unveiled; that’s all he wants. Eddie finally starts to find the peace and satisfaction he desires in a working-class life. A life without the fear of losing his fortune and without coveting what he doesn’t have. Eddie has opted out of Tocqueville’s American restlessness.

So too, Eddie’s sister, Margo. Feeling forced to pursue a Ph.D. that she never really wanted, in a mirror image of her father’s “work” on his book, Margo decides to stop pretending to write her dissertation. She wants to return to her first love—writing poetry. Yet this, also, is not a fairy tale ending. Margo recognizes she may not have the chops to write anything that anyone wants to read. She may fail as a poet. She also realizes that material rewards will be limited (and, of course, Frank and Kit cannot leave her any money). The unveiling, however, reveals Margo’s deepest desire, which she pursues. And she will realize satisfaction in pursuing it even if no grand success results from the pursuit.

For these two characters, Eddie and Margo, Beha orients us, if amorphously, to a form of Tocqueville’s answer for the restless materialism of American life. Margo’s poetry is less obviously a Tocquevillian solution, although art sometimes serves as a substitute for religion. At the very least, Margo opts out of the restless materialism of her parents and peers. She opts instead to follow an aristocratic pursuit, even as she needs to sacrifice economic success to do so.

Beha’s writing is lively, and very often amusing. The book is not pedantic, and I found myself musing over the characters and their lives for days after finishing the book. Dierdre McCloskey makes an obvious if little recognized point in the book Why Liberalism Works. McCloskey observes that capitalism does not in fact require the rat race. Markets are about choice, and people need not be slaves to choosing always more. That is, consuming more is not an ineluctable requirement for the success of market systems, contrary to Romantic and postliberal criticisms of capitalism. It can provide mere prosperity to those willing to receive it without fear or coveting. It can provide the type of prosperity that would give Eddie and Margot happy, if unexceptional, lives.

Beha has Sam Waxworth wonder at the very start of The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, “What makes a life . . . self or circumstance?” The unsurprising answer is that both do. But critical to the answer is what the soul desires in light of the circumstances in which it finds itself.