In 2000, after years of critical acclaim and anemic sales, Charles Baxter finally hit the big time with “The Feast of Love.” The book sold more than 200,000 copies, and a film version -- featuring Morgan Freeman’s rumbling baritone and a veritable parade of topless actresses -- was released last fall. Suddenly this writer’s writer was, as they say in Hollywood, bankable.
But Baxter remains a strange candidate for mainstream success. “The Feast of Love,” after all, is a work of stealth modernism: a jazzy suite of love stories, loosely based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In “Saul and Patsy” (2003), the author kept his structural shenanigans under wraps. Yet this nominally domestic novel about a nice young couple in the Midwest is darker and more devious than it first appears.
In “The Soul Thief,” Baxter ups the metaphysical ante once again. There are doubles, dreams, impersonations and a climactic bit of trickery that turns the entire novel into a kind of narrative Mobius strip. Yet after a cryptic preamble, we seem to be on the solid ground of naturalism. The year is 1973. The setting is Buffalo, N.Y., a decaying eyesore that embodies “the noble shabbiness of industrial decline.” In short order, we meet grad students Nathaniel Mason and Jerome Coolberg, whose freaky symbiosis is at the heart of the novel.
Mason is a typical Baxter creation: a Midwesterner with flat vowels and an emotional engine largely stuck in neutral. Coolberg is something else entirely: an emotional and intellectual parasite. “I mean to say that he was a thief,” Mason notes. “And what he tried to do was to steal souls, including mine.”
They meet at a party, whose atmosphere of woozy, boozy pretension is expertly skewered by the author (who did time as a grad student in Buffalo). Mason has his eye on Theresa, a delectable Marxist. Coolberg has his eye on Mason, to whom he attaches himself like an affected, poetry-spouting limpet. It’s not clear who’s the third wheel in this curious trio. Indeed, there seems to be some ominous current of intimacy between Theresa and Coolberg, even as Mason falls hard for the “beautiful, anxiously intelligent” woman with a neat row of Soviet medals pinned to her Army surplus jacket.
A love triangle, with its three menacing points, is notoriously hard to handle: A puncture wound is the least you can expect. Meanwhile, Mason encounters other problems. A burglar is stealing his books, shoes and shirts. Phantasmal figures seem to dog his steps. And he falls in love with Jamie, a lesbian sculptor who has taken him on as a kind of extracurricular project.
Under these stresses, the stolid Mason comes unglued. Hysterically confessing his love to Jamie, he feels himself “in the grip of inflated speech, exaggeration, all the insincere locutions of opacity and self-deception. He is becoming, he feels with sudden queasy recognition, like a character in a plot dreamed up by somebody like Coolberg.” Mason lurches into a nervous breakdown, capped by a mighty swoon. When he regains consciousness, 30 years have passed.
Everything has changed, and nothing. Mason is back in his Midwestern habitat, a married man with two kids, a forgettable job and a poignantly muted voice. All turbulence is behind him. Romance, he insists, “is a destructive myth after the age of nineteen.” Whether he has matured or simply stuffed his youthful intensity back into the tube is an open question.
Coolberg, meanwhile, is the impresario of a radio show, “American Evenings,” whose folksy interview format allows him to cannibalize the lives of one guest after another. “The show always began as a duet between the interviewer and the guest,” we read, but “the guest could not ascend, it seemed, without Coolberg’s help in running ahead and lifting the kite of the narrative.” This sinister figure summons Mason to Los Angeles for a soul-siphoning appearance -- and for a final reckoning. Apparently, the Nosferatu of NPR is ready to bare his own soul at last.
Baxter manages this encounter with satirical relish. His jaundiced view of Los Angeles, where the milk of human kindness seems to curdle before one’s eyes, suggests a triangulation between Nathanael West and Nathaniel Hawthorne (perhaps Mason’s first name is no accident). So it saddens me to report that the climax is a hackneyed bit of metafictional whimsy, which more or less sinks the novel. It would be unfair to give away the trick, although Baxter tips his hand in the opening pages. Suffice it to say that we’re dealing with a supremely unreliable narrator, and that the theft alluded to in the title might more accurately be described as an exchange of prisoners.
We are all soul thieves, in other words. We beg, borrow or steal our lives from others. Coolberg argues that this is a distinctly American trait. "[W]e’ve got disguises on top of disguises,” he tells Mason, “we’re the best on earth at what we do, which is illusion. We’re all pretenders.” He’s absolutely wrong, of course: It’s a global racket. But can there be a more flagrant offender than the novelist himself? To create a work like this one, with its flaws and scattered sublimities alike -- well, it takes a thief.