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Originally published Friday, February 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

A life-altering college encounter in "The Soul Thief"

"The Soul Thief" by Charles Baxter Pantheon, is told in both first and third person, by the same character looking back on a painful story. Nathaniel Mason is a graduate student in early-'70s upstate New York. He is nondescript, and intentionally so; he slips away into the murmuring wallpaper of student life.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Charles Baxter will read from "The Soul Thief" at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle's University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

"The Soul Thief"

by Charles Baxter

Pantheon, 210 pp., $20

In his enchanting 2000 novel "The Feast of Love" (a finalist for the National Book Award), Charles Baxter led his readers through a magical conga line of love, exploring the emotion in all its complexity through a multitude of characters both breathlessly young and reflectively old. Likewise "Saul and Patsy," in 2003, let us live alongside a newlywed couple in early bliss.

Love, however, doesn't have much to do with Baxter's newest novel, "The Soul Thief," a brief, poignant reflection on identity. And it's less a feast than a perfectly rendered appetizer. On my first time through the book, it seemed over too quickly; I wanted more time with the characters, and felt that the jump between Part 1 and Part 2 was too abrupt. The second time through, with expectations adjusted, "The Soul Thief" was darkly satisfying.

Baxter likes to play with the idea of a narrator (in "The Feast of Love," the narrator — to whom the characters tell their stories — is a pleasant fellow named Charles Baxter), and "The Soul Thief" is told in both first and third person, by the same character looking back on a painful story. Nathaniel Mason is a graduate student in early-'70s upstate New York. He is nondescript, and intentionally so; he slips away into the murmuring wallpaper of student life.

At a party, he meets two fellow students. Theresa is a beautiful if self-conscious intellectual (summed up perfectly with the phrase "Her brown hair is held back in a sort of Ph.D. ponytail") who charms Nathaniel, even as he isn't quite sure how to talk to her. Jerome Coolberg, pale and dead-eyed, is described by Theresa as, "Nobody knows what he is, actually. He has some grand destiny, he says, which he's trying to discover."

That destiny, in some part, turns out to be Nathaniel, whose life story Jerome strangely appropriates to alarming effect. Soon Nathaniel is questioning the very idea of identity, of his own autobiography: "a pile of moldering personal clichés," he muses, "given sentimental value by the fact that somebody owns them." Is he, himself, just a character in a plot created by someone else? To the reader, of course, he is — creating a literary hall of mirrors. The trio even visits a mirrored room at a museum where Nathaniel gazes warily at its "visual soup," wondering where the reflection ends and the person begins.

Jerome seems a virtual ghost; even when Nathaniel punches him, "his fist meets little or no resistance, as if the fogged-in body it struck had anticipated and already made a place for the fist." Years later, in the novel's conclusion (which jumps ahead several decades from their college days), he's no more substantial. As the two men reunite, Baxter masterfully shows us one more mirror, along with an envelope we'll never see opened.

"The Soul Thief," though brief (at just over 200 pages, it's almost a novella), is filled with references that those who love books will delight in finding — James, Fitzgerald, Stein, Highsmith. Baxter is a lyrical and gifted wordsmith, and many of his descriptions will haunt the reader long afterward.

Jerome, who has become a radio host (for a show not unlike "This American Life"), has an uncanny gift with his guests: "He gave their narratives a structure, understood their gains and losses, and sometimes offered them the key to what they were struggling to say, so that they blossomed into suddenly articulate observers of their own lives, they who had been wordless shadows and subalterns before." That's part of the gift Baxter has with his characters: He seems not to have created them but to have encouraged them to emerge on the page.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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