Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter








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I finished reading Charles Baxter’s new novel, The Soul Thief, and continued to wonder about who and what this was all about. Set in two time periods: 1970’s Buffalo and today, Baxter centers the action on two characters. Nathaniel Mason is a graduate student, and Jerome Coolberg has fashioned himself as a cerebral outsider. Coolberg begins to assume Nathaniel’s identity and claim Nathaniel’s past as his own. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 2, pp. 6-8:


On a cool autumn night in Buffalo, New York, the rain has diminished to a mere streetlight-hallucinating drizzle, and Nathaniel Mason has taken off his sandals and carries them in one hand, the other hand holding a six-pack of Iroquois Beer sheltered against his stomach like a marsu­pial's pouch. He advances across an anonymous park toward a party whose address was given to him over the phone an hour ago by genially drunk would-be scholars. On Rich­mond? Somewhere near Richmond. Or Chenango. These young people his own age, graduate students like himself, have gathered to drink and to socialize in one of this neigh­borhood's gigantic old houses now subdivided into apart­ments. It is the early 1970s, days of ecstatic bitterness and joyfully articulated rage, along with fear, which is unarticu­lated. Life Against Death stands upright on every bookshelf

The spokes of the impossibly laid-out streets defy logic. Maps are no help. Nathaniel is lost, being new to the baroque brokenness of this city. He holds the address of the apart­ment on a sopping piece of paper in his right hand, the hand that is also holding the beer, as he tries to read the directions and the street names. The building (or house—he doesn't know which it is) he searches for is somewhere near Klein­hans Music Hall—north or south, the directions being con­tradictory His long hair falls over his eyes as he peers down at the nonsensical address.

The city, as a local wit has said, gives off the phosphores­cence of decay. Buffalo runs on spare parts. Zoning is a joke; residential housing finds itself next to machine shops and factories for windshield wipers, and, given even the mildest wind, the mephitic air smells of burnt wiring and sweat. Rubbish piles up in plain view. What is apparent everywhere here is the noble shabbiness of industrial decline. The old apartment buildings huddle against one another, their bricks collapsing together companionably. Nathaniel, walking bare­foot through the tiny park as he clutches his beer, his san­dals, and the address, imagines a city of this sort abandoned by the common folk and taken over by radicals and students and intellectuals like himself—Melvillians, Hawthornians, Shakespeareans, young Hegelians— all of whom understand the mysteries and metaphors of finality, the poetry of last­ness, ultimaticity—the architecture here is unusually fin de something, though not siecle, certainly not that—who are capable, these youths, of turning ruination inside out. Their young minds, subtly productive, might convert anything, including this city, into brilliance. The poison turns as if by magic into the antidote. From the resources of imagination, decline, and night, they will build a new economy, these youths, never before seen.

The criminal naďveté of these ideas amuses him. Why not be criminally naďve? Ambition requires hubris. So does ideal­ism. Why not live in a state of historical contradiction? What possible harm can there be in such intellectual narcis­sism, in the Faustian overreaching of radical reform?

Even the upstate New York place-names seem designed for transformative pathos and comedy: "Parkside" where there is no real park, streets and cemeteries in honor of the thirteenth president, Millard Fillmore, best known for having introduced the flush toilet into the White House, and ... ah, here is a young woman, dressed as he himself is, in jeans and t-shirt, though she is also wearing an Army sur­plus flak jacket, which fits her rather well and is accessorized with Soviet medals probably picked up from a European student black market. Near the curb, she holds her hand to her forehead as she checks the street addresses. She is, fortu­nately, also lost, and gorgeous in an intellectual manner, with delicate features and piercing eyes. Her brown hair is held back in a sort of Ph.D. ponytail.


The young woman described at the end of the excerpt, Teresa, also plays a significant role in the plot of The Soul Thief. Baxter’s writing is precise, his imagination complex, and the structure and development of this novel may on occasion lead to reader frustration, but for those who persevere, Baxter delivers a fine book, even if it left me wondering about who was who and what exactly happened.


Steve Hopkins, May 15, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2008 issue of Executive Times


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