Author Bacharach publishes second novel
The title of Jacob Bacharach's second novel is borrowed from Deuteronomy 6: 5-9, a daily prayer in Judaism that's part of the Sabbath liturgy. But another Old Testament book, Genesis, loosely provides the plot for “The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates” (Liveright/Norton, $15.95).
The Deuteronomy passage is “an interesting counterpart to the Abraham and Isaac story,” Bacharach says, “because it addresses the notion of passing along knowledge to your children as being a fundamental duty of every adult. But it has an interesting resonance with the story of Abraham and Isaac, of course, because it was a somewhat fraught, at least early on, relationship.”
In the biblical story, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to prove his loyalty to God. Abraham is ready to commit the deed, when an angel appears and stops him.
Bacharach will celebrate the release of “Doorposts …” on March 24 at White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield.
“Doorposts” is the follow-up to the Lawrenceville resident's debut, “The Bend of the World.” That novel combined Bacharach's keen eye for the geography of Pittsburgh with science fiction. His new book taps into his Jewish faith and adolescence in Fayette County, where he attended Laurel Highlands High School.
Bacharach insists the book is not autobiographical.
“I'm much more boring,” he says with a laugh, noting that only one incident from his childhood — when a classmate asked if he was joosh, meaning Jewish — rings true.
The relationship between the father and son in “Doorposts” is by any measure anxious, and biblical. Abbie Mayer is one of the first environmental architects, always “sought, but not compensated.” To bolster his finances — and because he believes God has spoken to him — Abbie and his wife Sarah move to Pittsburgh in the mid-1980s to work with his sister, Veronica, a lawyer turned real estate entrepreneur.
Isaac Mayer comes along a few years later, a gift that Abbie and Sarah thought impossible. The son is brilliant but troubled, mostly interested in partying, and gay. Isaac's sexuality isn't an issue for his parents, but his lack of focus — he frequently spends his monthly trust fund money on eBay items, only to sell them when he runs out of cash — causes tension.
“One of the reasons I was so interested in a biblical narrative as a skeleton to hang the whole book on was because we have all these Sunday school recollections about the story of Abraham, but most of the details aren't actually in the original text,” Bacharach says. “The original text is very vague about times, about relationships, about who is doing what to whom. It's a very different kind of storytelling.”
Other characters appear, including Isabel, who moves to Pittsburgh from New York in the early 2010s to work at a nonprofit agency; Veronica Mayer and her business partner, Phil Harrow, the “Construction King of Morgantown”; Arthur Imlak, a dissolute real estate developer; and Sherri Larimer, the rough-edged doyenne of Fayette County politics. They meet by way of one of the region's most infamous boondoggles: the Mon Fayette Expressway. The project, conceived in the 1950s, partially constructed in the 1970s, and placed on hiatus in the 1980s and occasionally resurrected since, was supposed to bring economic prosperity to the area.
“For as long as I've been alive, people talked about that project,” Bacharach says, “as if it was going to be an amazing product of revitalization. Needless to say it wasn't. What was really amazing is nobody got it together to build (it). It was always piecemeal, always a state representative or someone pitching it as a job creator. I was always fascinated by it because it was an ongoing local scandal the entire time I was a teenager. It seemed like a great metaphor for broad-based infrastructure and property development.”
The novel also contrasts the Pittsburgh of the post-industrial age, when the steel industry imploded, and the city now reborn as a hub of technology and innovation. Again, Bacharach draws from the story of Abraham for this part of the narrative.
“Avram, as he's known before God changes his name, is born in the city of Ur, this massive metropolis, this place of wealth and power,” Bacharach says. “He eventually leaves and goes off into the hinterlands, the land of Canaan where he's wandering around has all these cattle and living a nomadic lifestyle. Pittsburgh in the ‘80s, after the collapse of steel, I thought, was as hinterland as you can get.
“I was interested in that sort of passage of time. Abbie comes in the ‘80s (to Pittsburgh) to take advantage of the sort of impoverished state of the place at the time. It's attractive because everything's cheap, and he's also desperate to get money. So there's this contrast with the place that people come to 20 years later, a different type of city, much more a land milk and honey than it was, but one in which the same things are going on. The city is very different but people with the same last names are still in public works.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.