Here is an extraordinary new novel from one of our most admired and acclaimed writers, a creator of "stunning, never predictable, glimmering fiction, full of mischief and insight" (Los Angeles Times).
During Nathaniel Mason's first few months as a graduate student in upstate New York, he 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 to have appropriated parts of Nathaniel's past that Nathaniel cannot remember having told him about. It is Jerome who seems to trigger the events that precipitate Nathaniel's total breakdown, and Jerome who shows up 30 years later--Nathaniel having finally reconstituted his life--to suggest, with the most staggering consequences, that Nathaniel's identity may in fact not be his own.
In The Soul Thief, Charles Baxter has given us one of his most beautifully wrought and unexpected works of fiction: at once lyrical and eerie, acutely observant in its sensual and emotional detail and audaciously metaphysical in its underpinnings. It is a brilliant novel--one that is certain to expand both his already-stellar reputation and his readership.
From the Hardcover edition.
The author of the National Book Award-nominated The Feast of Love, Baxter returns with this ninth book, an assay into the limits of character, fictional and otherwise. The first half of the novel follows the brief arc of Nathaniel Mason's graduate career in 1970s Buffalo, N.Y., which centers on his friendship with the sexy but self-dramatizing Teresa ("which she pronounces Teraysa, as if she were French") and her lover Jerome Coolberg, "a virtuoso of cast-off ideas." Coolberg, obsessed with Nathaniel, begins taking his shirts and notebooks, and claiming that episodes from Nathaniel's life happened to him. Coolberg drops a hint that something bad will happen to Jamie, Nathaniel's sometime lover; when it actually comes to pass, Nathaniel's world begins to collapse. In the novel's second half, decades after these events have occurred, Coolberg enters Nathaniel's life again for a final, dramatic confrontation. Baxter has a great, registering eye for the real pleasures and attritions of life, but the book gets hung up on metafictional questions of identity (the major one: who is writing this first-person narrative?). The results cheat readers out of identifying with any of the characters, perhaps intentionally. (Feb.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 11, 2008
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Excerpt from The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter
He 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.