cover image The Soul Thief

The Soul Thief

Charles Baxter, . . Pantheon, $20 (210pp) ISBN 978-0-375-42252-2

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.)