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Monday, March 23, 2009

The Soul Thief

Charles Baxter’s The Soul Thief has left me wondering what I must have missed. Baxter, after all, is a writer with a reputation, and one of his previous eight books, The Feast of Love, was a National Book Award nominee. This is my first Charles Baxter book and, based on reputation and reviews of his previous work, perhaps I expected too much from The Soul Thief. Whatever the reason, the book did not quite work for me.

The book’s central character, Nathaniel Mason, is a 1970s graduate student in Buffalo, New York, a loner who unexpectedly meets a pretty girl while making his way to a rumored party location one rainy night. Little does he know that this girl, Teresa, and the young man to whom she introduces him, Jerome Coolberg, will conspire to steal the rest of his life from him.

Coolberg is so obsessed by Nathaniel that he almost immediately begins to make portions of Nathaniel’s past his own, publicly claiming that the most dramatic events from Nathaniel’s history actually happened to him rather than to Nathaniel. With a little help, Coolberg manages to secure some of Nathaniel’s clothing and other personal items for his own use, pushing Nathaniel to the verge of collapse in the process, and uses the items to remake himself in Nathaniel’s image.

The second half of The Soul Thief happens some two decades later when Coolberg calls the Mason home asking for Nathaniel. Nathaniel, who has never mentioned Coolberg to his wife in all the years they have been married, reluctantly agrees to meet in Los Angeles, hoping for the long overdue confrontation that will provide him answers to all the questions he has carried inside for so many years.

By this point in the book, Baxter has created a level of anticipation and tension that has his reader racing toward what promises to be a dramatic climax. What the reader gets, instead, is a tricky ending that will likely leave him more confused than satisfied and perhaps, as in my case, at least a bit disappointed in the whole experience.

Rated at: 3.5

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