Monday, August 17, 2009

The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter

Over the weekend, I finished reading The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter. Baxter wrote The Feast of Love, a National Book Award nominee, so he clearly can write. In fact, many parts of this reasonably short novel (210 pages in the hardcover edition) are very, very good. But the conclusion is so muddled, confusing, and unsatisfying that, regrettably, it ultimately is not worth reading.

The novel focuses on two men, Nathaniel Mason, a Midwestern transplant attending graduate school in Buffalo, New York, and Jerome Coolberg, a cold, enigmatic, and slightly scary self-styled intellectual. Jerome develops an all-consuming interest in Nathaniel's life, going so far as to have Nathaniel's apartment burglarized and then wearing Nathaniel's purloined clothes. It looks like Jerome is trying to steal Nathaniel's soul/identity...or is he?

There's an ostensibly clever little "catch" on the third-last page of the book that's supposed to either (a) explain the foregoing 207 pages, or (b) leave the denouement open for interpretation by the reader. If Baxter's intended goal was (a), then he's not been clever or skillful enough as an author to achieve his objective; if it's (b), he's done a fine job, because there are many, many interpretations possible--all equally legitimate and all equally unsatisfying because they're so untethered to reality.

After I finished the book, my wife and I went for a walk to talk it over (she'd read it the week before). In a discussion lasting well over an hour, we could not come to an agreement on exactly what had happened--the book's that obtuse.

My initial reaction on finishing the book was that Charles Baxter was not a talented enough writer to pull off successfully what could have been an intriguing, complex, and intricate thriller about the nature of personal identity. The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that I'm right.

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