"The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates" by Jacob Bacharach.
By Shannon Reed
If you like to think about Pittsburgh as a series of sentimental celebrations — a montage of salt-of-the-earth steelworkers, championship-winning athletes and the pleasures of a close-knit family gathered together over cookies at the holidays — Jacob Bacharach’s new novel, “The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates” isn’t for you. However, if you, like me, enjoy seeing Pittsburgh through keen intellect and a gimlet eye, you’ll love Mr. Bacharach’s take on the ’Burgh and the settlements radiating out from it. He’s not interested in the black and gold, or Mister Rogers, or any other Pittsburgh tropes. Instead, the local author takes readers on a fascinating, if occasionally maddening, tour of the lesser-known parts, all the way to the West Virginia line.
Mr. Bacharach won rapturous praise for his first novel, “The Bend of the World,” also set in Pittsburgh. His new novel is even more challenging and may not prove as popular. That’s too bad, because while the novel has its flaws (that long and unmemorable title is one of them), it’s full of sharply observed characters and finely wrought dialogue. I laughed out loud more than once reading it, and felt genuine joy at some of the twists and turns it offers.
"THE DOORPOSTS OF YOUR HOUSE AND ON YOUR GATES"
By Jacob Bacharach Liveright ($15.95).
“Doorposts” is written in two interwoven time lines: the first begins in (roughly) 1980s New York and follows the architect Abbie Mayer as he moves his wife, Sarah, to Pittsburgh for a new start. In the other, set 20-some years later, Isabel Giordani also leaves New York for a better job in Pittsburgh and soon becomes acquainted with Abbie and Sarah’s adult son, Isaac. If you’ve noticed that those character names seem familiar, you’re right: This is a modern retelling of the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament.
In fact, the religious streak that runs through the novel is one of my favorite things about it. I loved that Abbie had a genuine vision from God, and I enjoyed reading about his attempts over the years to honor it, despite the open ridicule around him. The vision, and the variations on it, is itself very moving. Mr. Bacharach does some of his finest writing here.
Abbie, Sarah, Isaac and (especially) Isabel all register as unique characters, flawed, human and interesting. A fairly recent transplant to Pittsburgh myself, I especially enjoyed reading Isabel’s thoughts about her new hometown. Surveying Schenley Farms, she thinks, “It was one of the charms of the city: no one in his right mind would have built a city there.” Mr. Bacharach’s more minor characters can be compelling, as well, or they can fail to register. Abbie’s sister, Veronica, pops off the page, but his various business partners blur together.
For local readers, the author’s decision to set much of the action in Fayette County is a refreshing spin away from novels that treat “Pittsburgh” as nothing more than Oakland, Shadyside and perhaps Downtown. Having once worked in Perryopolis, I tossed my copy of the book in the air in excitement when I got to Mr. Bacharach’s apt description of it. It’s a real thrill to read his accurate portrayals of a too-often neglected area of the country. On the other hand, I’m not from Fayette County, and I suspect that people who are may bristle at his depiction of the natives there as — almost to a person — hicks of dubious morality. In general, Mr. Bacharach’s eyebrow-cocked gaze is a delight but can occasionally wear thin, and I wanted the narrator to be slightly less caustic at times.
I confess that the details of the actual plot of the novel didn’t engage me the way reading it did. It involves Abbie’s shady deals with his sister, Sarah’s affair with one of Abbie’s business partners, Veronica’s girlfriend’s accidental death, Isabel’s unknown parentage, Isaac’s boyfriend’s departure, a bunch of sketchy characters in Fayette County, a zoning board meeting in Pittsburgh, the transcript of an arbitration hearing, a Pittsburgh-based foundation, and the aforementioned visions. When in the acknowledgments Mr. Bacharach mentions that his agent told him his first draft didn’t make sense, I had to laugh. I’ve no doubt that it all ties together, but it probably had to be read with more interest in highway engineering than I possess.
That sounds like advisement to skip the novel, but I don’t mean to advocate that at all. This is a funny, incisive, complicated, challenging gem of a book, one that I loved reading. I may not recollect the plot points, but I’ll long remember Abbie’s vision, Isabel’s fate and the descriptions of how the highway winds south from our city.
On March 24 at 7 p.m., Jacob Bacharach will read from “The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates” at White Whale Bookstore, 4754 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield.
Shannon Reed is a contributor to The New Yorker and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, with credits at The Washington Post, Buzzfeed and New York Magazine (shannonreed.org).
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