“This isn't as warm and fuzzy as those earlier books,” Charles Baxter comments, somewhat ruefully, about his latest novel, The Soul Thief (Pantheon), as we eat lunch in a trendy Minneapolis restaurant above the Walker Art Center.
“But these are dark times,” he insists, as we enjoy a bird's-eye view of the city's gleaming skyscrapers from the restaurant's soaring windows. It's hard to believe, on this glorious autumn day, that on the other side of those tall buildings, reconstruction has just begun on the bridge spanning the Mississippi River that unexpectedly collapsed two months earlier, killing and injuring dozens of rush-hour commuters.
Although the 60-year-old Baxter, a University of Minnesota English professor, has written five novels, four short story collections, three books of poetry and two books of essays on writing fiction in the 37 years since his debut collection of poems, Chameleon, was released by New Rivers Press in 1970, he is best known for his breakout novel, Feast of Love (Pantheon, 2000), a National Book Award finalist that has sold 350,000 copies to date. A movie adaptation starring Morgan Freeman was released this fall.
While Feast of Love's overlapping tales of the nocturnal wanderings and romantic misadventures of a diverse cast of characters invite comparisons to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Soul Thief, with its faint whiff of the supernatural, is more reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, as a '70s-era graduate student suspects his identity is being appropriated—long before the Internet made such a violation almost commonplace.
“I like to pull the rug out from underneath readers,” Baxter explains. “As a Midwesterner, I'm always aware of what seems to me to be the security people think they have, living in the heartland, in the heart of the country.”
“There's this idea that nothing can happen to us here. Well, life always has its claws out,” he says. “It's the business of a storyteller to show how. I want to write stories in which you can feel the shadows fall. “That's why I like Alfred Hitchcock movies.”
Knowing that Baxter's father unexpectedly died when Baxter was 18 months old, and that, as a young man, he avoided being drafted to fight in Vietnam only by teaching public school in an underserved Michigan community provides one with some insight into the central underlying theme of all his stories: how the quiet lives of ordinary people living in middle America aren't just temporarily disrupted, but forever changed, by events beyond their control—a chance encounter, an accident, the impact of a stranger's words or deeds.
After our meal, we drive to Baxter's home, up what he claims is Minneapolis's steepest street. As the autumn sunshine floods his living room, we discuss a few of the more esoteric issues raised in The Soul Thief, including the fluidity of identity and his preoccupation with “soul thieves,” a term he's used before, most recently in his last novel, Saul and Patsy (Pantheon, 2003).
“I don't know where it comes from,” Baxter admits. “It's almost childish, isn't it, to worry that someone or something will come in the middle of the night and take your soul? Sometimes it's better for a writer not to examine all the sources.”
“I have a lucky life,” he emphasizes. “But I want to give a sense of the seriousness of these matters. Something has gone haywire in our culture. We've allowed our identities to become virtual. I can go to Facebook, to MySpace, and concoct an identity that's absolutely fictional. And no one will know until later—if at all.”
But really, this consummate storyteller asserts, he simply wants readers to enjoy the twists and turns, all the way to the surprising denouement, of this modern-day fable. “I'd like them to come out of this book as you come out of a movie theater, in a daze,” he says, “thinking about identity, thinking about the dream and the reality I've put them through.”