by Clifford Garstang
In this new novel from Charles Baxter, Nathaniel Mason is a student in Buffalo who meets Theresa and the derivatively intellectual Jerome Coolberg. Nathaniel becomes involved with Theresa, but she’s aloof. He also is involved with his lesbian friend Jamie, but neither of these relationships particularly compels him, at least not initially. And then for reasons that aren’t clear, Coolberg seems to be taking over Nathaniel’s life: his clothes, his biography, Theresa, and, eventually, even Jamie (in a way). Nathaniel has a breakdown as a result and then we see him again in the future. Now he’s married, stable, with two children, and Coolberg comes back into his life. There is a climactic scene when Nathaniel confronts Coolberg and the truth comes out.
The moment of truth, for me, succeeds and turns this novel into something memorable. Up until that point it was engaging. The reader sympathizes with Nathaniel and distrusts Coolberg. We wonder what happened to Jamie and Theresa. We’re curious about Nathaniel’s sister Catherine who, in order to rescue Nathaniel has something of a miraculous recovery from her own trauma. We want to know what Coolberg was up to back in their college days.
But there’s clearly been more going on here. The word “soul” is used over and over in the book in various contexts and with various meanings. Thievery is a recurring subject also. And in the end we are left with the question of what is stolen, and by whom? And that question raises meta-fictional issues that will be of interest to readers who are also writers. Ultimately it’s a book about fiction, and that’s why it’s some that I may need to re-read.
I studied with Baxter at Bread Loaf in 2005. One of the most memorable bits of learning I took from that workshop is “make a scene.” By that he meant don’t let your characters avoid the fiction’s central crisis. And he’s true to this principle here: Nathaniel must go to L.A. and he must confront Coolberg, just as Coolberg must reveal himself to Nathaniel.
I think I may have learned one other thing from Baxter, or possibly I learned it elsewhere, but I have an intense distrust of dreams in fiction. And so I was delighted by this passage from The Soul Thief:
I hate dreams. I hate them when they appear in literature, and I hate them when I myself have them. I distrust the truth-value that Freud assigned to them. Dreams lie as often as they tell the truth. Their imaginary castles, kingdoms, and dungeons are a cast-off collection of broken and obvious metaphors. When you hold them in your hand, you do not hold the key to anything. No door will open. You can live an honorable life without them. (178)