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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 40.
- Review Date: 2007-11-05
- Reviewer: Staff
The author of the National Book Award–nominated The Feast of Love, Baxter returns with this ninth book, an assay into the limits of character, fictional and otherwise. The first half of the novel follows the brief arc of Nathaniel Mason's graduate career in 1970s Buffalo, N.Y., which centers on his friendship with the sexy but self-dramatizing Teresa (“which she pronounces Teraysa, as if she were French”) and her lover Jerome Coolberg, “a virtuoso of cast-off ideas.” Coolberg, obsessed with Nathaniel, begins taking his shirts and notebooks, and claiming that episodes from Nathaniel's life happened to him. Coolberg drops a hint that something bad will happen to Jamie, Nathaniel's sometime lover; when it actually comes to pass, Nathaniel's world begins to collapse. In the novel's second half, decades after these events have occurred, Coolberg enters Nathaniel's life again for a final, dramatic confrontation. Baxter has a great, registering eye for the real pleasures and attritions of life, but the book gets hung up on metafictional questions of identity (the major one: who is writing this first-person narrative?). The results cheat readers out of identifying with any of the characters, perhaps intentionally. (Feb.)
A tale of true identity theft
Mention the term "identity theft" and you're likely to conjure up images of digital pirates pilfering Social Security and credit card numbers for monetary gain. As financially devastating as that crime may be, how much more terrifying would be the theft of the unique essence of personality? That's the fresh and intriguing question posed by Charles Baxter's chilling new psychological thriller.
Nathaniel Mason is a vaguely dissatisfied graduate student in Buffalo in the early 1970s. At a party he meets Theresa, another student, and encounters Jerome Coolberg, an enigmatic "collector of facts" who "wants to acquire everyone's inner life." Nathaniel soon enters into a relationship with Theresa, based on little more than physical attraction, while at the same time becoming involved with Jamie, a bisexual sculptor. All the while he's pulled, in a fashion that seems predestined, into Coolberg's orbit.
Nathaniel's world begins to unravel when he encounters a burglar in his apartment and then learns Coolberg is recounting autobiographical details lifted directly, and inexplicably, from Nathaniel's life. Soon the burglar is delivering Nathaniel's belongings to Coolberg, as if to transfer the tangible being of one man to the other, and the shaky edifice of Nathaniel's life collapses around him.
In the novel's second half, a middle-aged Nathaniel, married and with two children, seemingly has overcome the emotional damage inflicted by Coolberg. When the latter invites him to Los Angeles, a city well known for its hospitality to people wishing to shed an inconvenient identity, he travels there and discovers a startling secret at the hands of his tormentor.
The Soul Thief has a Hitchcockian feel, all the more because of Baxter's references, some direct and others more oblique, to that director's masterpieces. While the novel is in no sense a classic mystery, reading it has the feel of trying to assemble the pieces of an elusive, even multidimensional, puzzle. Baxter has created a brooding, atmospheric work that lingers in the mind in a vaguely unsettling way, like a half-forgotten dream.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.