November 20, 2008

Charles Baxter's The Soul Thief

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Being a university student in upstate New York can be an emotional experience, triggering binge drinking and even nervous breakdowns.
This is not a personal confession, but a truth confirmed by Charles Baxter’s newest novel, The Soul Thief. The protagonist, Nathaniel Mason, spends his first few months as a graduate student in Buffalo making new acquaintances, struggling with romantic relationships and attempting to make sense of his own identity. Baxter’s descriptive prose perfectly evokes the ambiguities of daily life and the complexity of individual personalities.
Nathaniel expresses himself in vivid language, which, while occasionally ambitious in its verbosity (with phrases like “the Faustian overreaching of radical reform”), genuinely conveys the essence of people and places. His description of a party captures the gradual sensation of overwhelming tipsiness:
The floor’s wood feels pleasantly gritty, almost reassuring, on the soles of his bare wet feet, though this floor swells a bit like the ocean … Nathaniel realizes that he has ingested a bit too much of the vodka bottle’s contents in these two mouthfuls.
Pushing the reader into a character’s mind is a difficult task, but Baxter accomplishes it in this description. Nathaniel’s meandering language serves to convey the mental disorder and confusion characteristic of inebriation. The dialogue that follows uses the straightforward vocabulary of youth, with none of the overbearing terminology with which some authors find it necessary to accompany chronicles of young people’s exploits. Throughout the book, Baxter avoids the trap of overcomplicated language, opting for a more direct style that allows the reader access into his characters’ minds.
The characters seem also true-to-life. Even the mysterious Jerome Coolberg comes across as a person one might encounter in real life. And the two women Nathaniel fixates on, Jamie and Theresa, have their own individual personalities, rather than being two halves of the same fuzzy ideal.
Baxter also captures the sudden revelations people can have about others. Nathaniel’s realization about the motives of the elusive Theresa is a typical example: “She is not drunk or tired at all. She’s just had enough of him.” These abrupt turns of phrase provide a sense of realism that also serves as a counterpoint to the more abstract mental distortions that occur as Nathaniel plunges deeper into a series of breakdowns that threatens to destroy him.
As Baxter delves deeper into Nathaniel’s emotional and psychological crises, the reader may yawn at times but still be hypnotized by the author’s skillful prose. The protagonist’s journey of self-discovery provides a bracing narrative that channels both the frustration and the pleasure of youth. Nathaniel’s story offers a deeper understanding of the experience of becoming an adult that all readers will recognize, with or without mental breakdown.