'The Bend of the World' tells a Pittsburgh coming-of-age story with humor and poignancy

Amid flying saucers and cosmic conspiracies, Jacob Bacharach makes a disarming, intelligent and seriously funny debut

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If 30 is the new 18, then “The Bend of the World” is a coming-of-age novel — that is, if young people these days ever grow up in Pittsburgh, especially with all the barista jobs available.

The young hero is Sewickley-born Peter Morrison, who turns 30 in the several months that it takes for him to realize “that without knowing what it was that I wanted, I wanted something worlds away from what I had.”

His journey to tentative adulthood, with the help of large doses of drugs, booze, run-ins with unhappy or dangerous people and flying saucers over Mount Washington, is the heart of novelist Jacob Bacharach’s disarming, intelligent and seriously funny debut.

By  Jacob Bacharach
Liveright/W.W. Norton ($25.95)

The publisher’s sales department is savvy enough to call it “the most audacious literary debut to come out of the Steel City since ‘The Mysteries of Pittsburgh’ ” by Michael Chabon.

In certain ways, “The Bend of the World” is a more polished and mature work than Mr. Chabon’s 1987 first novel. Along with an arresting style and emphatic voice, Mr. Bacharach captures a much bigger Pittsburgh that includes the city’s suspect politics, snooty suburbs, mass transit and a beautiful, original description of the skyline:

“The city, at night, was like a strange ship, like a sharp barge splitting a larger river; the black tower of the Steel Building like a crow’s nest; the filaments of the bridges like gangplanks.”

His characters move from the very rich to Scooty, Peter’s pot dealer, who delivers grass to Downtown offices like pizza. The novelist picks off the cubicle culture and management mediocrity, lining them up as if he’s in a Kennywood shooting gallery, observing that “the office only crushes your soul if you’re dumb enough to bring it work. I saw this affliction … take too many of my co-workers.”

But Mr. Bacharach, who himself works in the city’s arts community at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, lands a few roundhouse punches at that aggregation, including the Carnegie Museum of Art. His sweep is broad, and it hurts.

A key character condemns the current scene with the “intellectual poverty of the so-called visual arts and their laughable, bastard brother, performance art.”

Then he really gets started:

“The problem is that these artists … came up among a pack of basically undereducated art world hangers-on as well as few scam artists whose principal interest is … making these things into salable commodities. What they lack is any kind of analytic and philosophical framework within which they can make any kind of meaningful commentary. … The museums might as well be casinos.”

So, what did you think of the latest Carnegie International, Mr. Bacharach? The speaker is Mark, a mysterious figure working for a multinational corporation and companion of Helen, a seemingly unassertive artist whose best days are behind her.

Peter is sailing through an ineffectual relationship with a Pittsburgh sculptor, Lauren Sara (too many jokes about her two first names), who creates chair-like structures in her studio above a closed body shop and wears “sundresses over Spandex shorts.”

Gee, that could be a few artists around here. The final major character is Johnny, Peter’s childhood friend and conspiracy theorist in the extreme. He depends on Peter to provide free beer, to give an ear for his endless harangues about weird happenings under the Point State Park fountain and to flaunt his gayness.

The five stumble toward a strange and tragic moment of truth along the Allegheny River in Armstrong County where all or perhaps nothing becomes clear from the science-fiction backstory that features Carnegie, Frick, Westinghouse and even Washington along with those UFOs that might be connected to Pittsburgh’s fourth river.

“The Bend of the World” is an untidy mash-up of literary styles and genres with flashes of smart humor and insight that distracts us from its serious, poignant side — Peter’s road to adulthood marked by tough losses along the way.

However, it also marks the arrival of Jacob Bacharach as a writer to watch. He’s nervy, unafraid to confront important issues and romantic enough to create telling relationships.

Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Post-Gazette.

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