The Soul Thief

To have a soul is to have one in danger. For as long as the soul exists, it can be broken, banged up, traded in for a trifle. Beauty was always a gleaming bauble. “All dreams of the soul / End in a beautiful man’s or woman’s body,” warned William Butler Yeats. It’s a piece of wisdom that could make a fitting frontispiece for Charles Baxter’s new novel, too.

Set in Buffalo in the 1970s, when the city gave off a “phosphorescence of decay,” The Soul Thief is a grim, noir-like companion to Baxter’s popular 2000 novel, The Feast of Love. That book was a kind of midwestern Midsummer Night’s Dream, a lightly comic tale of lovers finding their mates. The Soul Thief, by comparison, is an arrow pulled from one of Poe’s quivers: it’s a story about how much we risk when dabbling in matters of the heart.

The soul in question in Baxter’s book belongs to Nathaniel Mason, a gullible, well-intentioned graduate student from Milwaukee who drives a butterscotch-colored VW and moons over women with a puppyish effectiveness. Like many of Baxter’s characters, Nathaniel has been hollowed out by loss — his father died, his sister was rendered mute by a car accident — and the mournful sound of life flowing through these holes draws women to him, but for all the wrong reasons.

Within 30 pages, Nathaniel has become entangled with two of them — Theresa, a woman whose beauty makes her arrogant but whose intellectual inferiority complex turns her dangerous. There’s also Jamie, a lesbian cab-driver-cum-sculptor who works with Nathaniel at a food co-op and takes a sisterly pity on him for being so easily roped into the orbit of people with ulterior motives.

This duo of entanglements becomes a trio, thanks to the presence of Jerome Coolberg, a creepy writer who carries himself with the affected air of a Viennese intellectual. Jerome’s persona is not the only thing he borrows. Baxter deftly portrays him as a stealer of ideas, of phrases, of poetry, which Jerome quotes without source. He even steals identities. Nathaniel has a start when he learns that Coolberg has been passing off parts of Nathaniel’s life story as his own. We know this cannot lead to good things.

Baxter is a first-rate storyteller — he has written a whole nonfiction book on plot, in fact — and The Soul Thief is tailor-made to be read to the end in one sitting. It begins in an atmospheric fog, is complicated by sex, and leaps forward in short chapters to the heart of the matter very quickly. This nighttime fugue-state world isn’t new for Baxter — it clings to some of the stories in his powerful collection, Believers — but the sheer velocity of this tale is a bracing change.

The pages turn so fast, in fact, that the deterioration in Nathaniel’s mental state happens almost as a background blur. We know Nathaniel sees spectral presences — women banged up and bloody, staring at him at stoplights. But perhaps they are just the blighted souls of Buffalo? Besides, other characters in this book see things. The Virgin Mary appears to Jamie in one of her dreams. Coolberg, in what might be a moment of impish pique, claims gods live in the water around Niagara Falls.

Even more powerful than these ghostly appearances are the absences Baxter braids into the black fabric of this book. The Soul Thief is full of haunted people and places. The sex Nathaniel has with Theresa and Jamie is hardly ecstatic — it is a void, out of which Nathaniel emerges as if from a deep, black sleep. He is so lonely that when he stumbles upon a burglar in his house, he offers him coffee. Buffalo, with its “noble shabbiness of industrial decline,” huddles around them in humps of snow. One can hardly blame the residents of the city (or, more appropriately, this book) from wanting to fly away.

Thus, the cast of The Soul Thief walk through the book as if they’d been cheated, and they all emotionally pickpocket one another in return. Nathaniel volunteers at a co-op food kitchen, borrowing goodwill from the misery of others. “Such drudgery makes him feel better, lifting a dead weight off his soul.” Meanwhile, Theresa toys with him. “Does enjoy creating desire in him just to see herself unmoved?” Jamie puts herself forward as a savior, a protector, but Nathaniel soon learns to doubt that, too. “His sudden suffering makes her want to bed him down,” he understands. “It’s his suffering she wants to have, to lay her hands on, not him.”

Baxter has always been a tremendously keen observer of romance, but with books like Feast of Love and Saul & Patsy, he came dangerously close to romanticizing romance. To read them, you might think all one needed to do is fall in love to find a purpose in life. Baxter is such a good writer, his prose so clear and aerodynamic, so perpetually poised upon lyric uplift that you would have to be a born cynic to notice this upon a first reading, though — or to care.

But love is a disorienting, destabilizing, and sometimes incredibly destructive force. It can overpower and rob, and The Soul Thief stares right into the center of this problem. Its centripetal force ultimately tears Nathaniel apart, and Baxter begins the tale again, 30 years later, with a twist. It’s a trick ending all right, and Baxter is extremely clever in bringing this off. But the issues of authorship that might be provoked by Baxter’s ending amount to a red herring. Tellers of tales are always thieving, even if it is just from their own lives.

It is the complicity Nathaniel’s story requires (and receives form us as readers) that gives this book its spooky luminosity. Baxter introduces Nathaniel’s world of haunted shadows — and burglars to whom he serves coffee, of things going weirdly missing from his house — piece by piece, short chapter by chapter. And we accept it; we buy all of it, and all that follows, because we think he will find love. More than anything Baxter has written yet, The Soul Thief imagines just how much this blind faith can cost you.