The Soul Thief [NOOK Book]

Overview

As a graduate student in upstate New York, Nathaniel Mason is drawn into a tangle of relationships with people who seem to hover just beyond his grasp. There's Theresa, alluring but elusive, and Jamie, who is fickle if not wholly unavailable. But Jerome Coolberg is the most mysterious and compelling. Not only cryptic about himself, he seems also to have appropriated parts of Nathaniel's past that Nathaniel cannot remember having told him about. In this extraordinary novel of mischief and menace, we see a young ...
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The Soul Thief

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Overview

As a graduate student in upstate New York, Nathaniel Mason is drawn into a tangle of relationships with people who seem to hover just beyond his grasp. There's Theresa, alluring but elusive, and Jamie, who is fickle if not wholly unavailable. But Jerome Coolberg is the most mysterious and compelling. Not only cryptic about himself, he seems also to have appropriated parts of Nathaniel's past that Nathaniel cannot remember having told him about. In this extraordinary novel of mischief and menace, we see a young man's very self vanishing before his eyes.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Maureen Corrigan
Charles Baxter's delicious new novel…The Soul Thief is so craftily constructed that to appreciate how liberally Baxter plants creepy hints of what's to come a reader really should savor this book twice. Not a chore, since Baxter writes cleverly and with the emotional intelligence that has distinguished his best short stories and novels…
—The Washington Post
Liesl Schillinger
Baxter's evocation of the mindset of Vietnam-era students and the "hysterical intellectualism" of their parties is gloriously done, especially in its attention to era-specific details.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Baxter's novel is an unusual comic work about a grad student whose life gets progressively stranger and stranger as he finds himself attracted to two women and discovers a fellow student is swiping bits and pieces of his life. Jefferson Mays reads with little hoopla or self-regard. He makes the book into a bedtime story, tucking us each into bed with his middle-register of a voice-no noticeable highs or lows. Baxter's book is funny in a deeply low-key fashion; without careful attention, much of the humor can zip by unnoticed. In that regard, Mays treats Baxter properly, trusting the author enough to maintain his tone throughout. Simultaneous release with the Pantheon hardcover (Reviews, Nov. 5).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Best known for his comic look at marriage in the National Book Award-nominated The Feast of Love, Baxter here takes a darker look at intertwined destinies. As a graduate student in Buffalo in the early 1970s, Nathaniel Mason finds himself involved with two quite different women. More important, the eccentric Jerome Coolberg intrudes in Nathaniel's life and seems to be trying to manipulate it, perhaps even steal it. Baxter lovingly re-creates the university milieu of the period, complete with his characters' self-involvement. When the narrative leaps forward to the present, Nathaniel has a more mature perspective on the challenges presented by Jerome. Baxter is an adept storyteller, helping to give this novel a smooth transition to audio. Tony Award-winning actor Jefferson Mays's sympathetic reading perfectly captures these individuals' confusion and contradictions. Recommended for all collections. [Also available as downloadable audio from Audible.com.-Ed.]
—Michael Adams

From the Publisher
“Gloriously done. . . . It's like watching fire slowly travel up a curtain, waiting for the moment the whole cloth will be engulfed.” —The New York Times “A narrative that pierces the air like an arrow in flight, a thing of splendid grace that kills. Before you get under the covers and commence reading, a word of caution. Lock your doors . . . a soul thief is making his rounds.” —The San Diego Union-Tribune“Examines love and lust and the various permutations and cries in between. . . . Few American writers handle those compelling subjects with a more sure touch or more worthy insight.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer “Delicious.... Entirely original.... The Soul Thief is so craftily constructed that to appreciate how liberally Baxter plants creepy hints of what's to come a reader really should savor this book twice.” —The Washington Post Book World “With a prose style lyrical, accessible and warmly humorous, Charles Baxter has been quietly building a reputation as one of America's favorite literary authors . . .His newest novel teems with the same good-natured empathy and wry humor that imbues his earlier works. . . it surely will delight.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch“Shrewd and mischievous”—Boston Globe “Deliciously creepy and full of hidden meaning”—Washington Post (Media Mix) “A subtle, engaging novel”—Kirkus“Baxter has a great, registering eye for the real pleasures and attritions of life”—Publishers Weekly“Though a much trickier and more cerebral book than his previous novels, this is a dandy psychological thriller in which proliferating mirrors will make your head spin. Baxter has given us the writer's version of that famous M.C. Escher print in which one hand is drawing the other.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune "Very few writers excel at both novels and short stories, but Charles Baxter is one of the gifted few who have. From the start of his career, his accomplishments in each have been clear and stunning... His work is subtly political and emotionally precise, whether registering the moods and faces of strangers or the complex of fond and hateful ways ordinary Americans converse."—Award of Merit, American Academy of Arts and Letters
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 Soul Thief, too.

Set in Buffalo in the 1970s, when the city gave off a "phosphoresce 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 [she] 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. --John Freeman

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle. He is writing a book on the tyranny of email for Scribner.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307377098
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/12/2008
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 900,978
  • File size: 296 KB

Meet the Author

Charles Baxter is the author of nine previous works of fiction, including Believers, The Feast of Love (nominated for the National Book Award), Saul and Patsy, and Through the Safety Net. He lives in Minneapolis.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Biography

Although his body of work includes poetry and essays, award-winning writer Charles Baxter is best known for his fiction -- brilliantly crafted, non-linear stories that twist and turn in unexpected directions before reaching surprising yet nearly always satisfying conclusions. He specializes in portraits of solid Midwesterners, regular Joes and Janes whose ordinary lives are disrupted by accidents, chance encounters, and the arrival of strangers; and his books have garnered a fierce and loyal following among readers and critics alike.

Born in Minneapolis in 1947, Baxter was barely a toddler when his father died. His mother remarried a wealthy attorney who moved the family onto a sprawling estate in suburban Excelsior. From prep school, Baxter was expected to attend Williams, but instead he chose Macalester, a small, liberal arts college in St. Paul. Intending to pursue a career in teaching and writing, he enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the State University of New York at Buffalo, attracted by a faculty that included such literary luminaries of the day as John Barth and Donald Barthelme.

After grad school, Baxter moved to Michigan to teach at Wayne State University in Detroit. He spent more than a decade concentrating on writing poetry, but after a particularly discouraging dry spell, he decided to try his hand at fiction. He labored long and hard over three novels, none of which was accepted for publication. Then, just as he was about to give up altogether, he attempted one last trick. He whittled the three novels down to short stories, replacing epic themes, extraordinary characters, and ambitious story arcs with the small, quiet stuff of ordinary life. It was a good decision, In 1984, his first collection of short fiction, Harmony of the World, was published. Another anthology followed, then a debut novel. Published in 1987, First Light charmed readers with its unusual structure (the story unfolds backwards in time) and a cast of richly, draw, fully human characters.

Baxter continued to publish throughout the 1990s, alternating between short and full-length fiction, and with each book he garnered larger, more appreciative audiences and better reviews. His breakthrough occurred in 2000 with Feast of Love, a novel composed of many small stories that form a single, cohesive narrative. Described by The New York Times as "...rich, juicy, laugh-out-loud funny and completely engrossing," Feast of Love was nominated for a National Book Award.

"Every time I've finished a book, it feels to me as if the washrag has been rung out," Baxter confessed in a 2003 interview. Yet he keeps on crafting absorbing stories infused with quiet (sometimes absurdist) wit and a compassionate understanding of the human condition. A longtime director of the creative writing program at the University of Michigan, he is known as a generous mentor, and several of his students have gone on to forge successful literary careers of their own.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview, Baxter shared some fascinating insights with us:

"My novels are sometimes criticized for being episodic, or structurally weird. And they are! I like them that way. It's fairly late in the day -- 2003 as I write -- in the history of the novel, and I think it's fair for writers to mess around with that form, and to stop thinking that they have to write books that move smoothly from the first act to the second act, and then to the climax and the denouement. I like digressions, asides, intrusions, advice, anything that gets in the way of a smooth narcotic flow. New novels should not look like old novels, except when they want to."

"My father died when I was eighteen months old, and I expect the unexpected to happen in life and in art, and my fiction is full, or loaded down, with unexpected fatalities of one kind or another. For me, that's realism."

"I had an unhappy childhood that I thought was happy, and I dove into books as inspiration and relief and comfort and security and information about what people did and how they thought. I can still get happy and sentimental just over the thought of libraries -- the image of a woman sitting quietly and reading is a terrifically sexy image for me."

"Like many writers, I'm private and quiet and observant and bookish. For a physical outlet, I lift weights at the gym two or three times a week, and I don't quit unless and until I've worked up a fairly good sweat. Many writers need an outlet like that to counter the sedentary nature of what they do. I don't have any wild delusions about the greatness of my work: I am happy to work humbly in this field where so many writers have created so many immortal manifestations of the mind and spirit. As Henry James said, you work in the dark; you do what you can; the rest is the madness of art."

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    1. Hometown:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 13, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      B. A., Macalester College, 1969; Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1974
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter OneHe was insufferable, one of those boy geniuses, all nerve and brain.Before I encountered him in person, I heard the stories. They told me he was aberrant ("abnormal" is too plain an adjective to apply to him), a whiz-kid sage with a wide range of affectations. He was given to public performative thinking. When his college friends lounged in the rathskeller, drinking coffee and debating Nietzsche, he sipped tea through a sugar cube and undermined their arguments with quotations from Fichte. The quotations were not to be found, however, in the volumes where he said they were. They were not anywhere.He performed intellectual surgery using hairsplitting distinctions. At the age of nineteen, during spring break, he took up strolling through Prospect Park with a walking stick and a fedora. Even the pigeons stared at him. Not for him the beaches in Florida, or nudity in its physical form, or the vulgarity of joy. He did not often change clothes, preferring to wear the same shirt until it had become ostentatiously threadbare. He carried around the old-fashioned odor of bohemia. He was homely. His teachers feared him. Sometimes, while thinking, he appeared to daven like an Orthodox Jew.He was an adept in both classical and popular cultures. For example, he had argued that after the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho, Marion Crane isn't dead, but she isn't not-dead either, because the iris in her eyeball is constricted in that gigantic close-up matching the close-up of the shower drain. The irises of the dead are dilated. Hers are not. So, in some sense, she's still alive, though the blood is pouring out of her wounds.When Norman Bates carries Marion Crane's body, wrapped in a shower curtain, to deposit in the trunk of her car for disposal, they cross the threshold together like a newly married couple, but in a backwards form, in reverse, a psychotic transvestite (as cross-dressers were then called) and a murdered woman leaving the room, having consummated something. The boy genius wouldn't stop to explain what a backwards-form marriage might consist of with such a couple, what its shared mortal occasion might have been. With him, you had to consider such categories carefully and conjure them up for yourself, alone, later, lying in bed, sleepless.Here I have to perform a tricky maneuver, because I am implicated in everything that happened. The maneuver's logic may become clear before my story is over. I must turn myself into a "he" and give myself a bland Anglo-Saxon Protestant name. Any one of them will do as long as the name recedes into a kind of anonymity. The surname that I will therefore give myself is "Mason." An equally inconspicuous given name is also required. Here it is: "Nathaniel." So that is who I am: Nathaniel Mason. He once said that the name "Nathaniel" was cursed, as "Ahab" and "Judas" and "Lee Harvey" were cursed, and that my imagination had been poisoned at its source by what people called me. "Or else it could be, you know, that your imagination heaves about like a broken algorithm," he said, "and that wouldn't be so bad, if you could find another algorithm at the horizon of your, um, limitations."He himself was Jerome Coolberg. A preposterous moniker, nonfictional, uninvented by him, an old man's name, someone who totters through Prospect Park stabilized with a cane. No one ever called him "Jerry." It was always "Jerome" or "Coolberg." He insisted on both for visibility and because as names they were as dowdy as a soiled woolen overcoat. Still, like the coat, the name seemed borrowed from somewhere. All his appearances had an illusionary but powerful electrical charge. But the electricity was static electricity and went nowhere, though it could maim and injure. By "illusionary" I mean to say that he was a thief. And what he tried to do was to steal souls, including mine. He appeared to have no identity of his own. From this wound, he bled to death, like Marion Crane, although for him death was not fatal.Chapter TwoOn 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 siècle, 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 naïveté of these ideas amuses him. Why not be criminally naïve? 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.They introduce themselves. They are both graduate students, both looking for the same mal-addressed party, a party in hiding. In homage to his gesture, she takes off her footwear and puts her arm in his. This is the epoch of bare feet in public life; it is also the epoch of instantaneous bondings. Nathaniel quickly reminds her—her name is Theresa, which she pronounces Teraysa, as if she were French, or otherwise foreign—that they have met before here in Buffalo, at a political meeting whose agenda had to do with resistance to the draft and the war. But with her flashing eyes, she has no interest in his drabby small talk, and she playfully mocks his Midwestern accent, particularly the nasalized vowels. This is an odd strategy, because her Midwestern accent is as broad and flat as his own. She presents herself with enthusiasm; she has made her banality exotic. She has met everyone; she knows everyone. Her anarchy is perfectly balanced with her hyperacuity about tone and timbre and atmosphere and drift. With her, the time of day is either high noon or midnight. But right now, she simply wants to find the locale of this damn party.Again the rain starts.Nathaniel and Theresa pass a park bench. "Let's sit down here for a sec," she says, pointing. She grins. Maybe she doesn't want to find the party after all. "Let's sit down in the rain. We'll get soaked. You'll be the Yin and I'll be . . . the other one. The Yang." She points her index finger at him, assigning him a role."What? Why?" Nathaniel has no idea what she is talking about."Why? Because it's so Gene Kelly, that's why. Because it's not done. No sensible person sits down in the rain." She salts the word "sensible" with cheerful derision. "It's not, I don't know, wise. There's the possibility of viral pneumonia, right? You'd have to be a character in a Hollywood musical to sit down in the rain. Anyway, we'll arrive at the party soaking wet. Our clothes will be attached to our skin, and we'll be visible." She seems to inflect all her adjectives unnecessarily. Also, she has a habit of laughing subvocally after every other sentence, as if she were monitoring her own conversation and found herself wickedly amusing. Together they do as she suggests, and she takes his hand in a moment of what seems to be spontaneous fellow feeling. "I can stand a little rain," she says quietly, fingering his fingers, quoting from somewhere. She leans back on the park bench to let the droplets fall into her eyes. To see her is heaven, Nathaniel thinks. No wonder she wears a flak jacket. They wait there. A minute passes. "Boompadoop-boom ba da boompadoopboom," she sings, Comden-and-Greenishly."Look at that," he says, pointing to a building opposite them. Through the second-floor window of a huge run-down house, the party that they have been seeking is visible. The nondifferentiated uproar of conversation floods out onto the street and makes its way to them in the drizzle. To his left, he sees a bum standing under a diseased elm, eyeing them. "That's it. That's us. There's the party. We found it."Theresa straightens, squints, wiping water from her eyes. "Yes. You're right. There's the place. What a wreck. I hope it has a fire escape. Hey, I think I see that kid, Coolberg," she says. "Right there. Near the second window. On the right. See him?""Who?""Coolberg? Oh, he's a . . . something. Nobody knows what he is, actually. He hangs out. He has some grand destiny, he says, which he's trying to discover. On Tuesday last week he was going around saying that art is the pond scum on the stream of commerce, but on Thursday he was saying that art is not superstructural but constitutes the base. Well, he'd better decide which it is. He changes his mind a lot. He's a genius but very queer.""Queer how?""Well, in the good way," Theresa says. She thoughtlessly puts her hand on his thigh and strokes it. "Maybe he'll tell you how he's being blackmailed. That's one of his best stories. Come on," she says.After standing up, she twirls around a lamppost and then dances barefoot into the street, neatly avoiding a car before managing a splashing two-step into a puddle, holding out her sandals as props, a serious Marxist hoofer, this girl, and Nathaniel, who can't match her steps with his own, is stricken, as who would not be, by love-lightning for her. He follows her. The bum stays outside under the elm, watching them go.In the apartment doorway everyone gets it. "You're soaked! That is so cool. This is very MGM, you two. Did you just kiss out there? Standing up or sitting down? Do you even know each other? Did you just meet? Are you guys in a Stanley Donen movie or a Vincente Minnelli movie? Have you been introduced? Do you need to be? Do you want to dry off or is that soaked look a thing that you'd like to keep going for a while? Want a joint, want a beer? The beer's in the kitchen and there's more out on the fire escape unless someone stole it or squirreled it away. Why not sit down right here, on this floor? There's whiskey if you want it. Is Marcuse correct about repressive tolerance or is 'repressive tolerance' another example of the collapse of that particular and once-viable Frankfurt Institut fur Sozialforschung nonsense? Buying off the masses with material goods? Well, everyone knows the answer to that question. Don't stand out there. Come in. Dry off. Join the party."They do come in, they do attempt to dry off with kitchen rags, they drop their sandals in a pile of sneakers and boots and sandals by the door. Almost immediately, while Nathaniel is recalibrating his emotions in relation to the woman he has just partnered across the street, she disappears into another room. Holding a beer bottle (he has misplaced the six-pack that he himself had brought—perhaps it is still out on the bench in the park and is now being consumed by the elm-bum), he damply threads his way through the corridors of the party, long dreamlike hallways of grouped couples, trios, and quartets. His clothes stick to his skin. The smell of dope and cigarette smoke, the pollution produced by thought, mingles with the aroma of whatever is cooking in the tiny kitchen, where a whitish semi-liquid chive dip has been laid out on a gouged table, bread crusts of some sort piled on a plate nearby, and after he leans over for a bite of whatever it is, Nathaniel stops, pauses, before a disembodied conversation about Joseph Conrad's Eastern gaze on Western eyes—the novelist is treated with friendly condescension for writing a variety of Polish in English that mistakes particularity for substance—a conversation that transitions into the weekend's football game and the prospects of the Buffalo Bills. Someone in another room is singing "Which Side Are You On?" in a good tenor voice. Soon, having wandered in front of a phonograph, he hears, first Joe Cocker and, quickly after that, Edith Piaf, the turntable being of the old-fashioned type with a spindle and a stack of LPs slapping down, one after the other, a vinyl collage, "Non, je ne regrette rien," followed several minutes later by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, out of tune as usual, playing "Open Country Joy."

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Is The Soul Thief a work of “metafiction”? What aspects of its narrative structure—and of the narrators themselves—might be considered metafictional? How does it differ from more conventional, naturalistic novels?

2. A fellow grad student, Bob Rimjky, says of Jerome Coolberg: “Really, all he wants to do is acquire everyone's inner life” [p. 15]. Why would Coolberg want to possess other people's inner lives? In what ways is this kind of appropriation similar to what novelists do?

3. Coolberg accuses Nathaniel of “willful incomprehension. And convenient amnesia. You're just like this country . . . a champion of strategic forgetting” [p. 193]. Is this true of Nathaniel? In what ways is America a champion of “strategic forgetting”?

4. After it is revealed that Coolberg himself is “the author” of Nathaniel's story, the narrator says that “the point cannot be that one person can take on another's life . . . The point is that although love may die, what is said on its behalf cannot be consumed by the passage of time, and forgiveness is everything” [p. 203]. In what ways is The Soul Thief about love and forgiveness?

5. The Soul Thief exhibits a sharp satirical wit. What are Baxter's chief satirical targets in the novel? What does his satire reveal about these subjects?

6. In his role as host of the radio show, American Evenings, Coolberg guides his guests to a revelatory moment that uncovers “the story's secret heart” [p. 156]. What is the secret heart of The Soul Thief? How is it revealed?

7. In what ways does the act of telling stories save both Nathaniel and his sister? What is Baxter suggesting here about the power of stories?

8. When Nathaniel's sister regains her powers of speech, Nathaniel rejects the idea that this was a miracle. Instead, he attributes her recovery to “the force of compassion, which under certain circumstances can bring the dead to life.” He goes on to say that “though a prejudice exists in our culture against compassion, there being little profit in it, the emotion itself is ineradicable” [p. 153]. Why would compassion have the power to bring the dead to life? Is Nathaniel right in suggesting that there's a prejudice against compassion in our culture?

9. Why does Nathaniel fall in love with Theresa and Jamie? In what ways is his love for Jamie more real, even though she is a lesbian, than his love for Theresa? Why isn't Nathaniel ever able to get over Jamie?

10. Coolberg asserts that we're all copycats and that what he's done is really no different than what everyone does. Is he right? Are we all adopting other people's personalities or identities? How should Coolberg finally be judged?

11. Nathaniel asserts that identities are nothing more than “a pile of moldering personal clichés given sentimental value by the fact that someone owns them” [p. 87]. Does the sense of personal identity have any inherent value beyond the sentimental, either in the novel or in “real” life? Does the novel make a distinction between a soul and an identity?

12. Nathaniel wonders why Gertrude Stein keeps intruding on his consciousness. Why won't Stein leave him alone? In what ways is Stein relevant to The Soul Thief?

13. Why does Baxter end the novel with Nathaniel offering “blessings on everybody. Blessings without limit” [p. 210]? What has brought him to this sense of gratitude, forgiveness, and all-inclusive love?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 31, 2011

    The Soul Thief

    It's a good thing this was an audio book. Had I actually had to read it, I don't know if I'd have been able to finish it. While Baxter may be a remarkable wordsmith, I found the story to be uninspiring. I didn't feel anything for any of the characters, felt nothing when they were confronted with conflicts and was relieved when problems were resolved only because I figured that would be a good place to turn off the CD. To give the man credit though, his descriptions are fantastic.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2008

    A Novel Rich in Imagery and Style

    Charles Baxter is mining new territory in his latest novel THE SOUL THIEF, and while his trademark keen character development ability remains in tact, he takes a step further into the realm of spiritual surrealism - and makes it work on every page! Nathaniel Mason is the character with the 'available soul', a graduate student whose life is operating on a subsistence level, partially due to circumstances beyond his control (loss from his father's death, and his sister's accident that has left her isolated and mute), and partially due to his misjudgment of relationships. He encounters the beautiful Theresa on a rainy Buffalo, NY night, is enchanted by her beauty and her presence, but also conflicted by the fact that she openly admits to being in a relationship with the bizarre Jerome Coolberg, a strange lad whose writing is as bizarre as his interaction with those around him. It is Coolberg who sets about hiring a thief (Ben) to enter Nathaniel's humble apartment to rob him of anything pertinent to Nathaniel's character -clothes, personal items, and anything that will allow Jerome to appear as Nathaniel, including his writings, his ideas, and his style. Oddly, caught in the act of the aborted robbery, Ben and Nathaniel become 'friends' - Ben hangs out at a soup kitchen where Nathaniel cooks and serves the indigent. Also working at the soup kitchen is lesbian artist Jamie with whom Nathaniel forms a somewhat symbiotic relationship and soon the players - Nathaniel, Theresa, Jamie, and Jerome - become involved in the gradual 'theft' of Nathaniel's soul. Nathaniel is not a stable personality and Jerome's very personal 'robbery' drives him into a state of psychological dissolve. The story jumps forward in time to a Nathaniel who has survived his breakdown (due largely to his sister's regaining her voice to read to him when he is in his near comatose state). Nathaniel has married, has children, and subsequently re-encounters Jerome Coolberg, his soul thief, and the changes in the two men's personalities and lives bring the story to an end. Yes, there are moments almost supernatural that test the reader's ability to stay with the story, and the concept of stealing (or selling!) a soul is not a new one: Goethe comes to mind throughout the narrative. But the strangeness of the story allows Baxter the freedom to rise above the pure narrative and wax philosophical, a technique that feels new to his work in comparison to previous novels. 'No one knows who we are here, in this country, because we're all actors, we've got the most fluid cards of identity in the world, we've got disguises on top of disguises, we're the best on earth at what we do, which is illusion. We're all pretenders.' Toward the end of the novel there is a statement that seems to echo the experience most sensitive readers will experience after reading THE SOUL THIEF: 'Is there anything more restorative than the act of one person reading a beloved book to another person, also beloved?' Reading Charles Baxter's latest novel is enriching and wholly satisfying. Grady Harp

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2008

    A reviewer

    The Soul Thief is a dazzling, mysterious tour de force. I read it in one sitting, awed by Baxter's command of language, the realism of the characters, the grand mystery of the whole damn thing. Buy this book today -- you will be stupefied by the power of story to suck you in. Still.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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