Charles Baxter’s novels and short stories have often questioned the nature of their composition: Is this a story? And if so, where is the boundary between the story and the life it may or may not reflect? Where is the boundary between the author and the narrator? Sometimes his stories don’t seem to believe that they are stories, even as they spin themselves out through the lives of their characters.

His new novel, The Soul Thief, features two memorable characters — the troubled and occasional narrator, Nathaniel Mason, and the enigmatic and ominous Jerome Coolberg, perhaps one of the most interesting and unlikable characters Baxter has ever created.

The story is told in two parts. The first takes place in Buffalo in “the early 1970s, days of ecstatic bitterness and joyfully articulated rage.” Nathaniel is a graduate student, new in town, without friends or much ambition. He stumbles into love affairs and into an acquaintanceship with Jerome, who may be an evil genius or simply a poseur who has seen too many movies. As is often the case with graduate students, we can never quite be sure.

Nathaniel finds himself under a subtle assault by Jerome, who seems to be assuming his identity, commandeering the facts of his life, stealing his soul. One of Nathaniel’s lovers is assaulted, and he is not sure whether or not Jerome is at fault. And the reader is never quite certain whether the assault is real or a reflection of Nathaniel’s growing psychic instability.

The second part of The Soul Thief takes place decades later. Nathaniel never finished his degree, but he recovered his stability. And then Jerome reappears, carrying a series of stories and an oddly familiar book. He continues to be cryptic and unlikable, and he has retained his weird obsession with Nathaniel’s life. He tells Nathaniel he is simply the reflection of a national trait — “No one knows who we are here, in this country, because we’re all actors, we’ve got the most fluid cards of identity in the world, we’ve got disguises on top of disguises, we’re the best on earth at what we do, which is illusion. We’re all pretenders.” Baxter keeps us uncertain about where the pretense ends, where the identity stops, and whether or not it could ever be stolen. It is a troubling effective novel, unforgettable in its uncertainties.

Charles Baxter returns to Ann Arbor to read from his new book at the Ann Arbor Book Festival “Authors at Lunch” on Wednesday, February 13. He also reads from the book at Shaman Drum later that day.

[Review published February 2008]