In the first of four sections of The Soul Thief, Charles Baxter opens up a time capsule of student life during the waning years of the Vietnam War when young people were intent on finding new ways to reshape their world. In this time of social and sexual experimentation, protagonist Nathaniel Mason attends, rain-soaked and barefoot, a free-form party abuzz with intellectual discussion and charged with sexual promise. From room to room he wanders, his transit mirroring the trajectory of graduate study as he takes up and discards snippets of overheard conversations on a variety of topics, all the while seeking to reconnect with a young woman, Theresa, whom he met only moments before on his way to the party but about whom he already feels the jolt of “love-lightning.” When he does find her, Theresa is part of a rapt audience gathered around the charismatic Jerome Coolberg, physically unprepossessing but compelling because of the strength of his verbal discourse and the intensity of his interest in Nathaniel.
What the reader eventually discovers is that Theresa serves as little more than bait in Coolberg’s scheme to possess Nathaniel’s soul. Lacking any inner life of his own, this archetypal role player and “virtuoso of cast-off ideas” seeks to mine the core of other people’s identities to see if there is anything of value for his use. Coolberg begins his aggressive examination of Nathaniel by intense peeping and probing; he eventually raises the stakes by hiring a junkie to burglarize the protagonist’s apartment. Thereafter, Coolberg can be seen around the city, narrating bits of Nathaniel’s biography and wearing some of his stolen clothes.
As subtext to Coolberg’s incremental appropriation of Nathaniel’s identity are numerable literary and visual references to the nature of selfhood. Early in his affair with Theresa, for example, Nathaniel takes her to visit the Mirrored Room, a 1966 installation by contemporary Greek American artist Lucas Samaras. Visitors to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo can enter this mirrored eight-foot-by-eight-foot cube and sit on a mirrored chair and rest their hands on a mirrored table. Nathaniel and Theresa react differently to the experience. She is turned on, perhaps because her identity itself resides in surfaces and she finds the multiplication of her own physical image intoxicating. Nathaniel, however, regards the space as “monstrous, meant to undermine the soul by wrapping it in reflections.”
Even as a graduate student in literary studies, trained in a multiplicity of critical perspectives and therefore comfortable with the concept of the relativity of meaning, Nathaniel still retains the hope of some consistent inner life, some unchanging selfhood. Perhaps this is the essence of his attraction to the seemingly unattainable Jamie, whose basic orientation is not heterosexual; he loves her for her spirit, embodied in the “skeletal flying machines” that she fashions in her studio. His longing is also reflected in the condition of his sister Catherine, with whom he converses by phone each Sunday; in these “conversations,” Nathaniel does all the talking because she has lost the power of speech after the premature death of their father. Despite the fact that Catherine does not audibly respond to his weekly, serial narratives, Nathaniel assumes that his sister’s essential self, the being that resides within the mute shell, needs to hear his voice.
Most reviewers agree that it is this first part of the novel that packs the most punch because of Baxter’s ability to evoke a place and time, a city redolent of the “noble shabbiness of industrial decline” in the early 1970’s, and because of the suspense he generates regarding the possible fate of his much too accessible protagonist.
In the second part of the novel, set in New Jersey some thirty years after the events in Buffalo, the reader learns that it is Catherine who restores Nathaniel to himself after he suffers a nervous breakdown caused, in part, by Coolberg’s machinations and prompted, in part, by the rape of Jamie, an act that he suspects Coolberg has instigated. Catherine ventures east from a halfway house in Milwaukee to the Manhattan apartment of their mother and stepfather where Nathaniel has been taken after he “fell into the mirror and swam in the glass,” a reference to French artist...
(The entire section is 1793 words.)