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The Soul Thief: A Novelby Charles Baxter
"In The Soul Thief, Baxter ups the metaphysical ante once again. There are doubles, dreams, impersonations and a climactic bit of trickery that turns the entire novel into a kind of narrative Möbius strip." James Marcus, Los Angeles Times (read the entire Los Angeles Times review)
Synopses & Reviews
Here is an extraordinary new novel from one of our most admired and acclaimed writers, a creator of stunning, never predictable, glimmering fiction, full of mischief and insight (Los Angeles Times).
During Nathaniel Mason's first few months as a graduate student in upstate New York, he is drawn into a tangle of relationships with people who seem to hover just beyond his grasp. There's Theresa, alluring but elusive, and Jamie, who is fickle if not wholly unavailable. But Jerome Coolberg is the most mysterious and compelling. Not only cryptic about himself, he seems to have appropriated parts of Nathaniel's past that Nathaniel cannot remember having told him about. It is Jerome who seems to trigger the events that precipitate Nathaniel's total breakdown, and Jerome who shows up 30 years later — Nathaniel having finally reconstituted his life — to suggest, with the most staggering consequences, that Nathaniel's identity may in fact not be his own.
In The Soul Thief, Charles Baxter has given us one of his most beautifully wrought and unexpected works of fiction: at once lyrical and eerie, acutely observant in its sensual and emotional detail and audaciously metaphysical in its underpinnings. It is a brilliant novel — one that is certain to expand both his already-stellar reputation and his readership.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Charles Baxter's delicious new novel, 'The Soul Thief,' is about identity theft — the old-fashioned kind sans credit cards and Internet con artistry. The evildoer of Baxter's tale lifts his victim's personal profile elegantly, rather than electronically, through hands-on psychological manipulation. Does this gambit sound familiar? It should, at least to fans of the late Patricia... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Highsmith. The antihero of Highsmith's classic crime noir series dubbed by aficionados 'The Ripliad' is Tom Ripley, a jolly sociopath who murders a wealthy dimwit and then passes himself off as the deceased so he can enjoy a champagne lifestyle. Baxter also doffs his hat to Gertrude Stein, who assumed her lover's identity in 'The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,' and to Alfred Hitchcock, another master of the stolen identity tale. So, even as Baxter's villain is placing his sticky fingers all over his victim's most private memories, Baxter himself is pinching ideas from his literary mentors. But 'The Soul Thief' is entirely original in its inspired setting: an (unidentified) graduate school program in Buffalo, N.Y., during the 1970s. For those of us who suffered the experience firsthand and lived to tell the tale, graduate school, in the humanities at least, was (and, doubtless, still is) a psychic cesspool of identity confusion where depressed young people were always quoting someone else, always affecting the mannerisms of their mentors and always trying to be as smart as (or smarter than) Hegel, Foucault or Woolf. The reigning Smartest Guy in this grad-school fish tank is Jerome Coolberg. A fellow student named Nathaniel Mason recalls hearing legends of Coolberg long before he met him: '(Coolberg) was given to public performative thinking. When his college friends lounged in the rathskeller, drinking coffee and debating Nietzsche, he sipped tea through a sugar cube and undermined their arguments with quotations from Fichte. The quotations were not to be found, however, in the volumes where he said they were. They were not anywhere.' Like spaghetti on a fork, Nathaniel finds himself dizzyingly twirled around, not only by Coolberg, but by two women: Theresa, a beautiful fellow graduate student ('She presents herself with enthusiasm; she has made her banality exotic.') and Jamie, a sculptor and dancer who treats Nathaniel kindly but holds herself aloof since she's a lesbian. An elaborate dance begins among this foursome. Wits are matched, information is gleaned, clandestine crimes are arranged. Slowly, too slowly, Nathaniel catches on that Coolberg has begun appropriating parts of his personal history. Coolberg even has the audacity to hire a drugged-out burglar to break into Nathaniel's apartment and steal his clothes — which Coolberg then models before Nathaniel. This sick game can't end well. It doesn't. 'The Soul Thief' is so craftily constructed that to appreciate how liberally Baxter plants creepy hints of what's to come a reader really should savor this short book twice. Not a chore, since Baxter writes not only cleverly but with the emotional intelligence that has distinguished his best short stories and novels (among them, the acclaimed 2000 novel 'Feast of Love,' which re-imagined — or 'stole' — the plot of Shakespeare's 'Midsummer Night's Dream'). Early in the novel, Nathaniel tells us he grew up in Milwaukee and enjoyed an unremarkable youth until his father died unexpectedly. Here's how Nathaniel describes the transformation that ensued: 'Once he was gone, his benign imperturbable self became painfully lovable and thus toxic. His monkey way of scratching his back, his unpleasant habit of picking his teeth after dinner ... all of it coalesced into the composite of an affable man who, in everyone's collective memory, gave nobody the advantage of having a case against him. ... His virtues came back, as virtues will, to haunt the living.' How smart, how unsentimental, that pronouncement is. Throughout 'The Soul Thief,' Baxter riffs eloquently on how people become someone else — either through death or the distortion of memory or trauma or the slow disintegration of aging. Lots of things out there lie in wait to steal our identities, Baxter warns. Sure, vampires like Coolberg are to be avoided, but how can we hope to escape the more mundane monsters of time and change? Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program 'Fresh Air.'" Reviewed by Maureen Corrigan, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Threading his bluesy magic with traces of Calvino, Gertrude Stein, and Auster, Baxter creates a ravishing twilight tale of breakups and breakdowns, stories pilfered and reclaimed, souls stolen and liberated." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Though the novel's menacing academic setting recalls Donna Tartt's brainy thriller, The Secret History, this is basically a lightweight doppelgnger tale infused with 1970s nostalgia. The real fun comes in decoding Baxter's cultural allusions." Library Journal
"[S]hrewd and mischievous....Whoever wrote The Soul Thief knows that we write about what keeps us up at night, that a writer gets to inhabit many lives, and that he who tells the story makes the meaning." The Boston Globe
"Very few writers excel at both novels and short stories, but Charles Baxter is one of the gifted few who have. From the start of his career, his accomplishments in each have been clear and stunning....His work is subtly political and emotionally precise, whether registering the moods and faces of strangers or the complex of fond and hateful ways ordinary Americans converse." Award of Merit, American Academy of Arts and Letters
"The Soul Thief, scene by scene and sentence by sentence, sparkles with a tender energy and a tongue-in-cheekiness, lending it a wry quality overall." Chicago Tribune
In his extraordinary new novel, Baxter delivers one of his most beautifully wrought and unexpected works of fiction: at once lyrical and eerie, acutely observant in its sensual and emotional detail and audaciously metaphysical in its underpinnings.
About the Author
Charles Baxter is the author of eight previous works of fiction, including Saul and Patsy, The Feast of Love (nominated for the National Book Award), Through the Safety Net, and Believers. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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