As I began this review, I knew that I was going to write about the failings of the novel and how I disliked it and found it a chore to read. As I wrote, though, I realized that as much as I disliked The Soul Thief, I’d come to appreciate Minneapolis author Charles Baxter’s ability to pull me into a world of pessimism and despair. It is not a place I choose to reside permanently or usually even visit willingly, but I appreciate Baxter’s power as a writer to slowly steal my own optimism as I drudged through his novel.
Nathaniel Mason, a graduate student with a sad life, slowly loses his history, his identity, and perhaps his soul to Jerome Coolberg, a Faust-like character who takes a shining to him. The novel navigates through Nathaniel’s life and thoughts as he struggles to understand the relationships he has constructed with Theresa, his cute fellow coed; Jamie, the (less attractive but more intriguing) taxi-driving artist; his own family, including his sister who calls him but does not speak; Coolberg, who knows private, personal details that Nathaniel has not shared with anyone; and ultimately, himself. Even though Nathaniel’s story of constant loss cries out for understanding, in the end, I felt apathetic about his fate.
Nathaniel is a gloomy character from the beginning. He has experienced great sorrows in his life and perhaps that is his destiny. However, Nathaniel never seems to fully know himself. He is torn between two women, neither of whom is fully interested in him. His graduate studies don’t seem to hold much interest for him. He is a drifter in his own life. Perhaps it is that extreme lack of awareness that makes it so difficult to care when it appears that his very soul has been stolen. He doesn’t really seem to have a soul from the beginning. Since Nathaniel does not possess his soul, it is never his to lose.
Where Baxter fails to create a sympathetic character, he succeeds in developing a dark and haunting mood. Reading the novel feels like being immersed in a deep thick fog of misery. Baxter makes statements about life that create a sense of hopelessness and house a kernel of truth. Because of the tone of the novel, his statements feel factual and absolute. Of course, “Every identity consists of a pile of moldering personal cliches given sentimental value by the fact that someone owns them. The fallacy of the unique! A rubbish of personal data, anybody’s autobiography” (87). Baxter does such a good job leading the reader into this world of confusion and shaplessness that his darkest perceptions become reality. That is where Baxter’s literary strength lies. It’s because the reader is immersed in such numbing confusion, though, that the end of the novel—the twist—loses its power. If identity, autobiography, is not unique, does not matter, than does it matter if the very soul of a person is stolen?
Perhaps I will pick up The Soul Thief again somewhere down the line and feel more connected to Nathaniel, more sympathetic or even empathetic to his experience. I hope so. For now, however, I am glad to be finished with it and able to reemerge from the heaviness that weighed down around me as I read it. But, read it. Please. It is a book crying out to be discussed.