Charles Baxter, The Soul Thief
Publisher: Pantheon Books
2008, 210 pages, hardcover, $20

charles baxter’s new novel The Soul Thief examines the makeup of character (both fictional and “real”) and the fragility of identity. Though produced with a fresh approach and engaging characters, readers may balk at the shifting points of view and metafictional “tricks,” even with the explanations provided. As a case in point, the novel follows the university and family years of Nathaniel Mason, which may or may not be the protagonist’s name-a mystery further complicated by the question: Exactly who is telling this story? Throughout, Baxter further teases the reader with ponderous statements such as: “Nothing is me”; and “Life is a series of anticlimaxes until the last one.”

Beginning in Buffalo, New York, in the early 1970s, Mason attends graduate school, the Vietnam War providing fodder for protest and angst and educated nihilism. Here, Baxter’s technique is at its finest, capturing the experience of intellectual revelry and the atmosphere around those who adore higher education for the sharing of minds, the spouting of bullshit, the ooze of inexperienced and unarticulated love. Mason quickly meets the free-spirited, pseudo-intellectual Theresa, who leads him into the company of Jerome Coolberg, a genius of sorts who is described as if a character from a Russian romance: “Really all he wants to do is acquire everyone’s inner life. I’d use the word ‘soul,’ but I don’t believe in souls …. He inhabits a dense spiritual vacuum.” Maintaining sexual relationships with both Theresa and Jamie, the sometime-lesbian artist/cab driver, Mason comes to learn that Coolberg is methodically attempting to assume his identity in both physical and historical capacities. With little else to hang on to, Mason clings desperately and pathetically to Jamie, who he knows cannot return his love. When a terrible, outside act of violence forces them apart, Mason blames Coolberg and his life falls apart.

The second-half of the novel switches from this third-person retrospective to a first-person, present-day account of Mason as an adult with a wife and two boys. From a shiftless young adult, he has matured into a picture of responsibility: proud of and confused by his children; loving and honest with his wife. And it is at a time when Mason is comfortable with his life in New Jersey that his wife informs him of a caller from California, one Jerome Coolberg. The decision is made: Mason will travel across the country to receive answers to the questions of his past.

Where great color and detail abound for the university years, the second-half of the novel is more intellectual and analytical. Perhaps this is a deliberate expression of the ways in which individuals can romanticize their pasts and relive intense periods with more vivid and interesting detail than the present. But in the reunion of old foes, information redundancies obtrude as if Baxter wishes to call attention to these details. In an otherwise concise and controlled novel, this is the only evidence of a more lax approach-or a lack of faith in readers. These repetitions, however, do not wholly detract from the thrust of the novel: the battle of identity, between what is yours and what can be appropriated by someone else. As Coolberg reasons toward the novel’s conclusion:

Everywhere down there, someone, believe me, is clothing himself in the robes of another. Someone is adopting someone else’s personality, to his own advantage. Right? Absolutely right. Of this one truth I am absolutely certain. Somebody’s working out a copycat strategy even now. Identity theft? Please. We’re all copycats. Aren’t we? Of course we are. How do you learn to do any little task? You copy. You model. So I didn’t do anything all that unusual, if I did it. But suppose I did, let’s suppose I managed a little con. So what? So I could be you for a while? And was that so bad? Aside from the collateral damage?

It is the contemplation of whether someone can truly know you, maybe better than you know yourself, simply from observing the clothes you wear, hearing the inflection of your voice when you tell stories about your family, and reading what can be found on the Internet.

Despite his literary tricks and these circular meditations on identity, the joy of this novel comes from its beautiful language and provocative riffs that make readers pause for contemplation, the most poignant of which may be: “Though a prejudice exists in our culture against compassion, there being little profit in it, the emotion itself is ineradicable.” But Baxter cannot help countering these heavy weights with playful musings that become morals unto themselves. “He could always use another acquaintance,” he writes of Nathaniel Mason, “even one who steals. Still, he latches the door.”

– Adam Pedowitz