THE SOUL THIEF
By Charles Baxter
Pantheon. 210 pp. $20
Charles Baxter's delicious new novel, The Soul Thief, is about identity theft -- the old-fashioned kind sans credit cards and Internet con artistry. The evildoer of Baxter's tale lifts his victim's personal profile elegantly, rather than electronically, through hands-on psychological manipulation.
Does this gambit sound familiar? It should, at least to fans of the late Patricia Highsmith. The antihero of Highsmith's classic crime noir series dubbed by aficionados "The Ripliad" is Tom Ripley, a jolly sociopath who murders a wealthy dimwit and then passes himself off as the deceased so he can enjoy a champagne lifestyle.
Baxter also doffs his hat to Gertrude Stein, who assumed her lover's identity in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and to Alfred Hitchcock, another master of the stolen identity tale. So, even as Baxter's villain is placing his sticky fingers all over his victim's most private memories, Baxter himself is pinching ideas from his literary mentors.
But The Soul Thief is entirely original in its inspired setting: an (unidentified) graduate school program in Buffalo, N.Y., during the 1970s. For those of us who suffered the experience first-hand and lived to tell the tale, graduate school, in the humanities at least, was (and, doubtless, still is) a psychic cesspool of identity confusion where depressed young people were always quoting someone else, always affecting the mannerisms of their mentors and always trying to be as smart as (or smarter than) Hegel, Foucault or Woolf.
The reigning Smartest Guy in this grad-school fish tank is Jerome Coolberg. A fellow student named Nathaniel Mason recalls hearing legends of Coolberg long before he met him:
"[Coolberg] was given to public performative thinking. When his college friends lounged in the rathskeller, drinking coffee and debating Nietzsche, he sipped tea through a sugar cube and undermined their arguments with quotations from Fichte. The quotations were not to be found, however, in the volumes where he said they were. They were not anywhere."
Like spaghetti on a fork, Nathaniel finds himself dizzyingly twirled around, not only by Coolberg, but by two women: Theresa, a beautiful fellow graduate student ("She presents herself with enthusiasm; she has made her banality exotic.") and Jamie, a sculptor and dancer who treats Nathaniel kindly but holds herself aloof since she's a lesbian.
An elaborate dance begins among this foursome. Wits are matched, information is gleaned, clandestine crimes are arranged. Slowly, too slowly, Nathaniel catches on that Coolberg has begun appropriating parts of his personal history. Coolberg even has the audacity to hire a drugged-out burglar to break into Nathaniel's apartment and steal his clothes -- which Coolberg then models before Nathaniel. This sick game can't end well. It doesn't.
The Soul Thief is so craftily constructed that to appreciate how liberally Baxter plants creepy hints of what's to come a reader really should savor this book twice. Not a chore, since Baxter writes cleverly and with the emotional intelligence that has distinguished his best short stories and novels (among them, the acclaimed 2000 novel Feast of Love, which re-imagined -- or "stole" -- the plot of Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream").
Early in the novel, Nathaniel tells us he grew up in Milwaukee and enjoyed an unremarkable youth until his father died unexpectedly. Here's how Nathaniel describes the transformation that ensued:
"Once he was gone, his benign imperturbable self became painfully lovable and thus toxic. His monkey way of scratching his back, his unpleasant habit of picking his teeth after dinner . . . all of it coalesced into the composite of an affable man who, in everyone's collective memory, gave nobody the advantage of having a case against him. . . . His virtues came back, as virtues will, to haunt the living."
How smart, how unsentimental, that pronouncement is. Throughout The Soul Thief, Baxter riffs eloquently on how people become someone else -- either through death or the distortion of memory or trauma or the slow disintegration of aging. Lots of things out there lie in wait to steal our identities, Baxter warns. Sure, vampires like Coolberg are to be avoided, but how can we hope to escape the more mundane monsters of time and change? *
Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air."