Charles Baxter is a trickster. He couldn't resist being a character in his previous novel, The Feast Of Love, in which an insomniac writer with his name stumbled upon the people who supplied him with the book's plot. The Soul Thief feels like a companion piece, an experiment Baxter continues under different terms, with different results. After only six paragraphs, the narrator abruptly interrupts himself, announcing, "Here I have to perform a tricky maneuver… I must turn myself into a 'he' and give myself a bland Anglo-Saxon Protestant name." That bland name turns out to be Nathaniel Mason, and so begins The Soul Thief, an identity thriller with Nathaniel out to discover the truth about the people around him without losing sight of himself.
His nemesis, the titular metaphysical burglar, turns out to be Jerome Coolberg, drawn as the kind of self-involved pseudo-philosopher type most people have encountered on college campuses. They meet in the early '70s at a graduate school in Buffalo, New York, where it seems like everyone has the idea that will transform something. These are delusional, desperate types, pining for a cause, a mission, another person, or whatever else will give them their own identity. For his own part, Nathaniel ends up simultaneously intrigued and exasperated with Jerome; he stays in Jerome's orbit only to be close to Theresa, the flirtatious girl in the army jacket that he falls for fast in the opening pages.
Nathaniel has his own past, filled with the misfortune that can befall families: his father died too soon, rendering Nathaniel's sister mute. And somehow, Jerome already knows these things and more, confounding Nathaniel, who feels his identity is being threatened. By the time Jerome starts stealing and wearing his clothes, Nathaniel is sweaty and paranoid, at the precipice of a complete breakdown. The question is, who is Jerome Coolberg? (The answer, mercifully, does not veer into Fight Club territory.)
The Soul Thief is short and swift, and while the answer to the question of Jerome undermines an otherwise-intriguing book, Baxter has crafted something with the momentum of a dark, pulpy whodunit, replete with rainstorms, love triangles, and manic energy. Baxter juggles these delicate souls for the duration of the novel, but ultimately, his deftness makes the twist at the end feel all the more forced.