A Well-Woven Contemporary Tale
For his second act, Pittsburgh novelist Jacob Bacharach has turned in another work of enormously entertaining literary fiction set in Pittsburgh. It’s less cosmic than his debut, the 2014 sci-fi sendup “A Bend in the World,” but equally peppered with highbrow cultural references, trenchant social observations and turns of phrase that spin you right up to the point of vertigo. “The Doorposts of Your House and On Your Gates”—an unwieldy title taken from the Deuteronomy passage that serves as the epigraph— represents an achievement that longtime followers of regional public policy will relish: Bacharach has made the building of the Mon-Fayette Expressway a central element in a story of biblical proportions.
His New York publisher makes clear that “Doorposts” is of such proportions, with the book jacket proclaiming it a modernday retelling of the Abraham and Isaac story from the Book of Genesis. Irreligious readers should not be scared off. The theology is lightly worn; the story is just as much about sex and real estate, the two other great lines of human inquiry. I did have to dust off the Good Book to nail down several names and places and plot twists, and fear that others may have skated past this mainline Protestant. No matter. There are enough frothy family dynamics and highstakes business high jinks to keep the story chugging along as a secular morality tale.
“Doorposts” begins with a vision. God tells Abbie Mayer, a promising young architect living in New York, to get out of town and build upon a mountain deep in the wilderness. He receives the direct message while sitting in a synagogue with his wife, Sarah, and her family, at the annual Yahrzeit memorial service for her late brother. Their decision to move toward his vision is hastened by another factor. Abbie’s infidelity with one Cathy has created a marriage crisis, and what better place to start life over than Pittsburgh circa 1990? His sister, Veronica, is a successful real estate developer here, and she can employ his talents, as well as his cunning.
The story toggles between that grim post-industrial collapse period and modern- day Pittsburgh, “no longer a city of browns and gray concrete, but of green and glass.” Into this new Pittsburgh lands Isabel, also from New York, leaving behind a blah boyfriend, who dismisses her by saying, “I just feel that our relationship is lacking a core of intimacy.” She has been lured to town to work at the Future Cities Initiative at Carnegie Mellon, which everyone refers to as “Barry Fitzgerald’s outfit.” Barry is the epitome of a nonprofit executive director on the make, endlessly entertaining and fundraising. “FCI is a wastewater treatment plant for the endless river of slurry that is my money,” declares Arthur B. Imlak, the local Marcellus Shale centa-millionaire, on Isabel’s first night in Pittsburgh, at a dinner party at Barry’s modernist pad in Point Breeze. Arthur’s braggadocious comment foreshadows the conclusion of her tenure in town, and sets the tone for the cynical self-dealing that propels the story.
The fashionably late dinner guest at that party is the novel’s fulcrum: Isaac, the son of Abbie (read Abraham) and Sarah. He’s a rich kid in his mid-20s, a lithe bicyclist with fluency in French, ambitious taste in multiple boyfriends and a constant appetite for drink and drugs. In one of the coincidences that bind the characters, Isabel is startled to realize that Isaac’s father is the Abbie Mayer, “one of the foremost environmental architects in America, a pioneer of Earth-friendly construction and design techniques.” She reveres his work, which exists much more in theory than practice, expounded in well-paid lectures around the world. His greatest creation might be his own home. Known as “The Gamelands,” it’s an eco-friendly compound built into a Fayette County mountaintop near the famous Summit Inn. The land fulfilled the vision sent to Abbie in that synagogue. To acquire the wealth to realize the vision? That’s where the Mon-Fayette Expressway comes in, and opportunities for real estate development at key interchanges, mixed with forwardthinking bets on gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale. “There’s gold in them thar hills,” says Arthur Imlak, whose ambitions lure Abbie into open conflict with his sister.
Rather than try to unspool all the machinations behind the deal and the human sacrifices along the way (Bible stories are full of death and destruction), let me just commend Bacharach’s skill at narrating a complex arrangement with a large cast, shifting back and forth in time. Elements click into place as clues dropped early reveal themselves along the way.
“Arthur Imlak offers up the fabled Napa Valley wine for a fateful dinner with Abbie and Sarah just after they moved to Uniontown in hot pursuit of the vision.”
Bacharach writes with the detached air of a 19th-century narrator, moving his grandiose characters through the epochs in subjunctive tenses, and pausing for worldly asides. In a trek through the woods, “Isaac was totally heedless, smashing through everything like one of the nightmare feral boars that were retaking European forests and occasionally attacking German ramblers.” After Abbie makes a confident but unconvincing presentation at a city zoning board meeting, “The bespectacled man regarded him curiously for a moment, a look Abbie recognized from a vacation in Italy, when he’d addressed waiters and hotel clerks in a language he was certain was Italian.” The author expects that you can read French, or at least suss out the cognates. Cultural figures from Osip Mandelstam to Marc Bloch (Russian poet and French historian, respectively) punctuate the prose, but at least the truly obscure, like David Bentley Hart, get explained on the spot. (“He’s an Eastern Orthodox Anarchist Monarchist. God. Don’t you read the internet?” quips Isaac. Bacharach, in his prolific work as a blogger, has a thing for anarchists.)
Jacob Bacharach, a noted oenophile, also expects you to be impressed when a bottle of Stag’s Leap appears. Arthur Imlak offers up the fabled Napa Valley wine for a fateful dinner with Abbie and Sarah just after they moved to Uniontown in hot pursuit of the vision. Large deer roaming the woods of The Gamelands play a central and mysterious role in “The Doorposts of Your House and On Your Gates.” A big Cabernet from Stag’s Leap is indeed a heavenly pour.