The story of Abraham is well known in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. According to the texts, God calls upon Abraham from his home in Mesopotamia to journey to the promised land with his family.
That story inspired Pittsburgh writer Jacob Bacharach's second novel.
"The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates" is a modern retelling of Abraham's tale set in Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania.
90.5 WESA’s Virginia Alvino Young spoke with Bacharach about his new book.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VIRGINIA ALVINO YOUNG: What is so fascinating to you about biblical narratives, particularly that of Abraham and his family?
JACOB BACHARACH: If you actually go back to the original texts, they are much stranger and more alien, and more unfamiliar than the stories that we remember in our heads from Sunday school or from our religious education. Just because it’s is an amazing story of one of the most screwed up families in history, and the stories of the biblical patriarchs and their families are stories of just incredibly bizarre and unhappy families.
ALVINO YOUNG: Given that your novel retells the story of Abraham and his family, what is your relationship like with your father?
BACHARACH: My relationship with my family is very close and incredibly boring. I like to write stories about titanic weirdos, but I, myself, am a very dull person leading a fairly ordinary life, working a day job as an administrator and getting along quite well with my mom and dad, so it’s not particularly autobiographical.
ALVINO YOUNG: Your main character Abbie does not have fond memories of growing up Jewish. What is your relationship now to the religion, culture and practice of Judaism?
BACHARACH: I’m a barely practicing Jew. I like to tell people that I go to high holy day services, or try to, to please my mother, which I guess makes me exceptionally Jewish. I have an interesting relationship to Judaism. I feel a great degree of cultural affinity for Judaism, it’s certainly informed the way I think of myself as a writer perhaps more than anything else.
ALVINO YOUNG: You’re a Pittsburgher and place is a big component in the book, including street names, geography and local vernacular. How does that sense of place impact local and non-local readers?
BACHARACH: I think that for local people there’s just this sort of pleasant thrill of recognition. It’s always nice to read about places that you really intimately know, to see them being portrayed. For people who don’t live here, I like to believe that the place forms a character in and of itself. The real geographic specificity, even if you don’t necessarily recognize the street name or the particular river, provides a real sense of texture and reality underlying the sort of surreality of the plot itself.
ALVINO YOUNG: You grew up in Fayette County and witnessed the development of the Mon-Fayette Expressway. What did you observe there that you wanted to translate into a fictional work?
BACHARACH: What was fascinating is that that project like so many big infrastructure projects, particularly in rural and disinvested areas in a state like Pennsylvania, are always proposed as having this massive community impact. They’re going to generate jobs, they’re going to generate economic investment, they’re going to drive traffic through. In reality, they seem to have virtually no impact on the community writ large, except insofar as they create additional opportunities for public corruption. I don’t know if anyone’s driven down Route 43 lately, but you’re lucky if you see two other cars going in either direction on this project that cost tens of billions of dollars to complete. It’s a fascinating contradiction.
ALVINO YOUNG: Many of the book’s characters deal with real estate and development, often through dishonest means. What is it about real estate that encouraged you to give it such a prominent role in your work?
BACHARACH: What is the story of Abraham? It’s a real estate story, it’s a story of a bunch of people who wander around, occupy properties and try to figure out where ultimately they’re going to settle down. Again, if you read the original text, they actually make a lot of shady deals along the way, when they’re not just killing people and taking over the land. So, I sort of began from that premise. Real estate writ large seems to me to be something we’re all invested in, even if we don’t own homes and properties ourselves. Because the distribution and ownership and sale of property so impacts the actual physical geography that we occupy, our whole city, the streets that we drive on, the way our lives are constructed, the way our neighborhoods interact, the demographics of our neighborhoods. All of those things are determined by who owns what property. And looking at the sort of skullduggery that goes into the actual division and distribution of property in a modern city provides a sort of fascinating insight into the city as a kind of character in and of itself.