Tuesday, September 02, 2008
weekly book review: the soul thief, by charles baxter
File this one under "showed promise."

Baxter's anticipated follow-up to the highly acclaimed The Feast of Love started off well enough, I suppose. Nathaniel Mason, narrating awkwardly in the 3rd person, is a graduate student in upstate New York and on his way to one of the smarmiest parties ever put to ink. It's there, amongst the hipsters and faux Marxists, where he first meets Jerome Coolberg,"The Soul Thief." Coolberg is purported to be some sort of genius, however Nathaniel is quick to note that nearly everything spewing from his mouth is stolen material.

Though he first seems harmless enough, it doesn't take Nathaniel long to realize something about Coolberg is a bit...off. Still, Nathaniel can't seem to help from forming an uneasy friendship with Coolberg, and that's when things take turn for the creepy. Nathaniel's apartment is burgled, his clothes go missing, and Coolberg somehow seems know very personal things about Nathaniel - things Nathaniel doesn't recall ever sharing with him. The issue is forced to its crisis when he catches word that Coolberg has taken to passing Nathaniel's history off as his own. His excuse? He's writing a book, and Nathaniel's a major source of inspiration. From here the story takes several twists, the biggest one being, of course, the ending. Which was awful.

As I stated earlier, this novel certainly had potential. Annoying opening party scene aside, the first act read like Hitchcock at his best - full of ominously mysterious characters with undefined motives. In fact, the book even begins with a reference to Psycho, a reference the reader will later recognize as a major clue. And even though I *loves* me some Hitchcock, I most certainly didn't love this novel.

Why? As the plot unfolded I was bothered by several things, but I could have looked past the pedantic dialogue and unlikeable characters had the ending delivered better. And when it comes down to it, it's the ending that ruined The Soul Thief for me. I'll be vague for the sake of anyone who may still want to give it a shot, but after all the allusions dropped throughout, I was geared up for the ending to be as classy and smart as a Hitchcock film, when instead it felt cheap and gimmicky. Baxter my man, you could have done so much better.  

I have no doubt that Charles Baxter is a great writer, however I'm not sure one would be able to discern that on this strength of this novel alone. Hardcore Baxter fans will probably still want to check it out, but for everyone else...maybe don't bother. It wasn't the worst way to spend a few hours, but it was hardly the best.

Charles Baxter
210 pages, 2008

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