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2016 Common Reader

The Soul Thief
by Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter's novel, The Soul Thiefimg, asks its readers a central question: what makes us who we are? Is it our clothes, our name, our ideas, or our work? What do we do when we find our identity challenged?

Publishers' Weekly describes The Soul Thief as an "assay into the limits of character, fictional and otherwise." The novel is written in two halves: the first centers on Nathaniel Mason's '70's era graduate studies in Buffalo, where he is drawn into a dangerous friendship with the flamboyant Teresa and her boyfriend Jerome Coolberg; in the second half, Coolberg re-enters Nathaniel's seemingly mundane life. Obsessed with Nathaniel and appropriating clothing, notebooks, and even anecdotes about Nathaniel's life, Coolberg is the "soul thief" of the title, and the dramatic effect of these thefts on Nathaniel opens up questions of personal identity and psychic wholeness.

The New Yorker describes Charles Baxter as a novelist with a "talent for creating uncanny settings and telling details." The novel delivers both dramatic tension and a final twist. Professor Baxter is the Edelstein-Keller Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota. The Soul Thief was published in 2008 by Pantheon. Also published by Pantheon, Baxter's newest work is There's Something I'd Like You To Do: Stories.

Identity and Creative Fiction: The Soul Thief

by Diane Steinberg
2016 Convention Chair
The College of New Jersey

Sitting down to write a review of Charles Baxter's The Soul Thiefimg is daunting—not because the novel is a challenging read, but because not revealing its clever and unexpected ending is crucial to a successful review. The Soul Thief's cleverness, however, is precisely what makes it such a joy. The reader expects a denouement—the novel sets up its readers to anticipate an ending that will rock us back on our heels; yet we still are gloriously surprised, entertained and satisfied by its conclusion.

Let's back away from the novel's conclusion, however, and begin at its beginning. The Soul Thief is like a hinged diptych, with two settings and time periods in the life of Nathaniel Mason. The novel opens in the 1970s with Nathaniel Mason, a young graduate student in upstate New York, at SUNY-Buffalo. Even 40 years ago, Buffalo was an aging city, on the very northern edge of the United States, with Niagara Falls and the Erie Canal as its only claims to national importance. In Buffalo, Nathaniel falls under the twin spells of Jerome Coolberg, the novel's titular "soul thief,” and Theresa, who pretentiously gives her name a French pronunciation. Mason navigates university life, his obsession with Teraysa, his volunteering at a local soup kitchen, his simultaneous love affair with sculptor Jamie, and the early seventies, the era in which the counter-cultural rumblings of the sixties erupted into national consciousness. Left with no cultural traditions on which to rely, Mason and the others in his student and soup kitchen orbit have to invent their identities, but only after they have first questioned and rejected any inherited traditions and practices.

The novel's strongest moments occur when author Charles Baxter allows Mason and Coolberg to share the page. Mason becomes obsessed with the idea that Coolberg is using his belongings—beginning with some of Mason's shirts—appropriating his family story, sharing his lover Theresa, and ultimately stealing his identity and biography. Mason and Coolberg both wrestle with typical seventies student angst, in patterns that do not easily resolve themselves.

Fast forward thirty years to 2005 when Mason and Coolberg meet again, this time in Southern California. Nathaniel is a seemingly ordinary middle class husband and father who has shed his 1970s student persona along with that era's fashion and music, and we discover him married to Laura, and the father of two boys. All of Nathaniel's youthful idealism has found its way into his younger son Michael, whose brief appearances in the novel are always delightful and off beat. In this second half of the novel, the reader is tempted to contrast and analyze the women in Mason's life: the enigmatic Theresa, long-gone but never forgotten; Jamie, and Mason's sister Catherine, who both seem to take turns in the novel as damaged and silenced songbirds; and his wife Laura, the most shadowy of the novel's principal women. Nathaniel Mason flies to the western edge of America, paralleling his trip with Coolberg and Theresa to the northern edge of America, and momentarily re-unites with both Jerome Coolberg and his own younger identity.

If questions of identity, literary form, and contemporary narration interest you, pick up The Soul Thief. You most likely will finish it tomorrow, and be eager to open the Sigma Tau Delta blogs and begin blogging about it. Read it soon, before a less careful reader spoils its denouement.