The title of Jacob Bacharach’s new novel, The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates, suggests an adaptation of a biblical story or a deeply religious tale. The line is part of an ancient, daily Hebrew prayer that affirms the divine commandment to attach a mezuzah, a small parchment with a prayer written on it, on every doorway in a Jewish home or business.
The book is mostly about a modern-day Jewish family, The Mayers—father Abbie, a well- respected architect, his wife Sarah, and their son Isaac—and there are very few biblical connections. But the recurring motifs of nature and spirituality come to life throughout, particularly in the first chapter, when Abbie is at Synagogue services in nineteen-eighties Manhattan. Abbie closes his eyes and thinks God is sending him a message. Suddenly, he feels he’s standing in a field next to a deer.
Its coat was mangy and matted, not the smoothly speckled brown of a deer glimpsed from a car as you speed down a country road, but a mottled, wild collision of every brown. There were ticks in its hide; his vision was such that he saw them clenched and ravenous against the gray-black skin under the animal’s coat… Its antlers were immense, prehistoric, before the old world shrank to a merely human scale, with eight points on each. They’d just begun to shed their velvet, which was bloody and lose upon them. He could smell the blood, also. The buck’s eyes were black and utterly inhuman and they reflected his face. He saw in his reflection, in the eyes of this animal that had no need or will to speak, another self that was his own self before language and beyond language; then, apprehending something without the need for language, he opened his eyes.
Bacharach displays his glib gymnastics in this follow-up sentence:
So, it was during Mostly Musical Shabbat, during a Calypso version of Adon Olam, on the occasion of the observed anniversary of a brother-in-law whom he’d never met, while staring at a stained glass depiction of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt that recalled nothing so much as a Saturday-morning, Hanna-Barbera cartoon, that God spoke to Abbie Mayer for the first time.
Abbie interprets this vision as a divine message to leave New York City and to move near his sister in Pittsburgh. It’s a “new start” for him and Sarah, whose marriage has been fraught with difficulties including infidelity, infertility, and financial woes.
Here the story jumps forward to present day, where thirty-something Isabel Giordani has just fled Manhattan and a soured relationship to work for a non-profit in Pittsburgh called The Cities Institute. Through her boss, she befriends Isaac Mayer, Abbie’s son. He is an over-indulgent, aimless, gay man in his early twenties. Isabel is shocked to learn that Abbie is Isaac’s father, and we’re left to wonder what connection exists between Isabel and Abbie for almost the entirety of the book.
The author takes liberties with heavy descriptions, jumps in time, and changes in point-of-view, even from paragraph to paragraph. But this doesn’t distract the reader from identifying with the characters. Even Isaac, a terribly self-absorbed, frivolous man, possesses a childlike innocence that speaks to the author’s level of insight into the human psyche. The characters feel real, and the author goes anywhere and everywhere he pleases. The book runs along parallel tracks, some of which don’t converge until the very end. Yet the non-linear structure works because Bacharach creates a sense of pleasure linking past revelations to the present day.
While Isabel steadily wedges her way into the Mayer family, Abbie is entrenched in his real estate business along with his sister and a few other minor characters. We know that there was some sort of illegal activity surrounding one of their deals, but the details remain hazy until almost the end of the book, when we are taken back in time (again) to the arbitration hearing.
Bacharach’s novel contrasts the very physical and tangible fields of architecture and real estate against the persisting backdrop of nature in the rural areas of Pittsburgh and in the recurring visions which are part of Abbie’s spiritual awakening—which brings us back to the title of the book. Hanging a parchment “on your doorposts” is a reminder to include God and spirituality as a part of mundane daily life.
In the final scene, Abbie and Isaac are reunited after Isaac has a fistfight with an undercover cop. Coming home from jail, Isaac and Abbie begin a violent argument, and Isaac flees into the night, toward the vast woods of their large property. He falls and injures himself. Abbie comes to his rescue. And in a moment of tenderness and tears, they see a wild buck. The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates brings to light the ties between parent and child, and brings the contrast between the spiritual and the physical beautifully into focus.