Jacob Bacharach’s second novel builds on the promise of his first | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Jacob Bacharach’s second novel builds on the promise of his first

If the novel’s surface is glossily fun, Bacharach obviously also has deeper concerns

If you want to set a novel up for failure, one way is to frame it as an “update” on a classic story. Often, the new work will be found lacking because it’s either too like the narrative that inspired it or too different. In any case, readers might spend so much time thinking about how the novel diverges or doesn’t from its source material that it simply proves a distraction.

But here comes Jacob Bacharach, announcing that his second novel is nothing less than a contemporary take on the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac — the one where God orders the aged patriarch to sacrifice his first-born. Happily, however, The Doorposts of Your House and On Your Gates not only avoids such pitfalls, but proves Pittsburgh-based Bacharach to be a novelist of depth and reach, and certainly no one-hit wonder after his entertaining 2014 debut, The Bend of the World.

The new novel centers upon morally compromised architect Abbot “Abbie” Mayer and his family. Abbie’s an indifferently observant Jew but a literal visionary: He’s a pioneer in environmentally sustainable architecture who believes that God told him (more or less) to build himself a big “green” house in the woods. But naïve, idealistic Abbie, who starts out in New York City, ends up working in Southwestern Pennsylvania with his older sister, Veronica. There he becomes entangled in shady land deals involving, among other things, such ripped-from-the-headlines matters as the Mon-Fayette Expressway and fracking for natural gas.

The story, set mostly in Pittsburgh proper and Fayette County, spans three decades, from the 1980s to the present. And much like the Old Testament, it’s heavily concerned with both land ownership and matters of paternity, the latter especially involving Abbie’s wife, named Sarah (of course), and his son, Isaac (ditto), a dissolute young gay man who’s arguably both the novel’s most entertaining character and its most tragic. As Bacharach writes, the young man “professed to believe in whimsy as a guiding life principle, though he practiced something more akin to thoughtless inconsistency.”

Bacharach’s tone is often comic, even socially satiric, Tom Wolfe by way of Wilde. When Isaac parties in Pittsburgh with his friend Isabel, another key character, Bacharach writes: “They’d been drinking, and they’d done some lines. … Isabel had the rictus of approximate fun that occludes the face of people over thirty who are acting if they’re still under it.” Bacharach skewers most every character’s pretensions, and he’s also at wittily limned details. When depressive, alcoholic Sarah is introduced, for instance, she’s wearing a “diamond tennis bracelet … [that] shone as if it were reflecting a bonfire made of all the paper money in the world.” There are also largely humorous (if occasionally menacing) scenes of Abbie and associates’ dealings with power-brokers in rural Fayette County.

Yet if the novel’s surface is glossily fun, Bacharach also obviously has deeper concerns; the book’s title, after all, quotes Deuteronomy outlining how to profess one’s love of God. Abbie intermittently rails at God, in whom he might or might not actually believe. And when he more than once “jokingly” pimps out his wife to business associates, it’s unclear who’s the object of his greatest disdain: her, them or himself. One highly amusing chapter is, cleverly, rendered in the form of the transcript of an arbitration hearing (in which the arbitrator assumes a distinctly god-like role).

In Doorposts, God might be regarded (to paraphrase John Lennon) as a concept by which we measure our moral decay. For Bacharach isn’t interested merely in pointing out the obvious — that people are greedy and corrupt. He’s most concerned with how they reconcile that reality with their image of themselves as good or even (dare we say) righteous.

One locus of this dynamic is the Future Cities Institute, a suspect nonprofit promoting sustainable architecture that brings together characters including Abbie, Isabel, real-estate tycoon Arthur Imlak and a slippery character named Barry Fitzgerald. And elsewhere, Bacharach intriguingly asserts:

"There was — in society, in literature, in psychology — a belief in change by degrees, that a person moved by increments from good to bad, each tiny tick of the watchwork gears imperceptible until, over time, the hands on the face had visibly moved. …. But wasn’t it truer to say that the good and the evil, or the right and the wrong, or the sin and the righteousness, always coexisted within each person; he was neither one thing nor the other; not the clockwork, but the quartz, vibrating imperceptibly between alternate states, never, to the observer, in one or in the other; molecular; quantum; even the act of looking might alter it.”

Doorposts updates a facet of Genesis in the best way — not by merely retelling it in modern dress, but by expanding on its mysteries, which are, in the end, not mysteries of God but of the humans all around us.

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