A few days ago, a friend posted the question: what do you do with a book where you don’t like any of the characters?
That question made me remember that I’d been meaning to review Charles Baxter’s book “The Soul Thief”. Why had I put the review off for several months? Well, mostly because I enjoy reviewing books that I like.
Charles Baxter writes some compelling prose and I was very interested in this tiny book with the intriguing title – you might even more appropriately call this book a novella. In it, we follow the story of Nathaniel Mason, a graduate student in the early 1970s. He forms a strange love triangle (quadrangle?) with a girl, a lesbian friend and the book’s antagonist who goes by the unlikely name of Jerome Coolberg. The graduate students are insufferably pretentious – attempting to out-do one another with obscure cultural and literary references in painful intellectual pissing contests. They are all thoroughly unlikeable. Mason dislikes Coolberg, but can’t seem to escape his sphere of influence. In fact, Coolberg becomes obsessed with the Nathaniel – his past, his friends, his stuff – in a sense tries to usurp his “self”. Hence, the book’s title.
I kept rooting for Mason to man-up against his nemesis or at least ditch them or maybe for them all to be a little less annoying. Alas, no such luck. The story’s finale (I can’t really call it a climax) takes place in Los Angeles in the here and now where Mason & Coolberg meet again to come to terms with their past and intertwined existence. The “twist” ending left me flat.
Two stars (and not one) for some great prose and turns of phrase, as well as the interaction between Mason and his sister which was the most real-feeling and emotionally-connected part of the story.
I am glad this was a short book.