The Soul Thief, a novel by Charles Baxter, focuses initially on two guys and two girls living in Buffalo, New York. One of the girls is a lesbian cab driver. The other girl and the guys are students at a Buffalo university. Guy number one, Nathaniel, first falls for good-looking girl number one, Theresa, when they help each other find a party they’re going to. She’s a knock-out, flip, provocative, and Nathaniel thinks immediately he loves her. Waiting at the party is guy number two, Jerome, who has some mysterious appeal to everyone, including Theresa, and apparently has decided he’s going to haunt Nathaniel, assume his identity, work something out with Theresa, and generally make an eccentric asshole of himself in the service of art . . . or philosophy . . . or soul-work.
The setting is early 70s. I was in college then. The references are generally accurate, if overblown, as is the entire short novel. The idea is that the receding tide of the 60s still kept people turned-on, enlightened, and so forth. Well, sort of, yes, but not with the phony pomposity of this crew.
For reasons that aren’t clear, Nathaniel decides Theresa is just a physical wonder and drops her. Instead, he falls in love with Jamie, the lesbian cab driver, who tells him it’s not going to work but sleeps with him anyway.
All the while Jerome is in the background, engineering personal problems for Nathaniel, such as having his apartment burglarized and, ultimately, having Jamie mugged and raped.
The chattering and very normal style of the narration buckles under these events, as does Nathaniel. He has some kind of break-down and drifts off campus into a series of mindless jobs that ultimately lead to satisfaction with a wife and two kids–very bourgeois.
Nothing is very well-developed but fortunately the story moves quickly into a recap of Nathaniel’s recovery and, years later, an invitation from Jerome to visit him in L.A., where he hosts a radio program called American Evenings. Long story short: Jerome pursued Nathaniel because of a gay attraction. He also wrote a manuscript that detailed the ins and outs of what happened in Buffalo, pretending that Nathaniel was the narrator. Nathaniel hates this. What he loves, by now, is the endearments of his very average family life. He doesn’t care about Norman O. Brown or Nietzsche anymore. He just wants to climb out of Jerome’s sick narrative
What ultimately happened to Theresa and Jamie? In various ways, they don’t make it through the story. Jamie left Nathaniel a goodbye letter, but he chose not to open it. To me this is a bit of authorial negligence, if not cowardice. There are a number of Baxter’s literary jokes embedded in this text; maybe this is one of them. If so, it falls as flat as the others. We don’t need strange intrusions by Jane Austen’s fiction. Nor do we need Nathaniel’s sister, who has been mute for years, suddenly regaining her voice when she rushes to him after his breakdown. Really?
I think this is a kind of soft novel about people like you and me having more interesting and devious lives that we’ve actually lived. It’s verbally squishy and needed rethinking before publication. One man’s opinion. On to the next book.