Mention the term "identity theft" and you're likely to conjure up images of digital pirates pilfering Social Security and credit card numbers for monetary gain. As financially devastating as that crime may be, how much more terrifying would be the theft of the unique essence of personality? That's the fresh and intriguing question posed by Charles Baxter's chilling new psychological thriller.

Nathaniel Mason is a vaguely dissatisfied graduate student in Buffalo in the early 1970s. At a party he meets Theresa, another student, and encounters Jerome Coolberg, an enigmatic "collector of facts" who "wants to acquire everyone's inner life." Nathaniel soon enters into a relationship with Theresa, based on little more than physical attraction, while at the same time becoming involved with Jamie, a bisexual sculptor. All the while he's pulled, in a fashion that seems predestined, into Coolberg's orbit.

Nathaniel's world begins to unravel when he encounters a burglar in his apartment and then learns Coolberg is recounting autobiographical details lifted directly, and inexplicably, from Nathaniel's life. Soon the burglar is delivering Nathaniel's belongings to Coolberg, as if to transfer the tangible being of one man to the other, and the shaky edifice of Nathaniel's life collapses around him.

In the novel's second half, a middle-aged Nathaniel, married and with two children, seemingly has overcome the emotional damage inflicted by Coolberg. When the latter invites him to Los Angeles, a city well known for its hospitality to people wishing to shed an inconvenient identity, he travels there and discovers a startling secret at the hands of his tormentor.

The Soul Thief has a Hitchcockian feel, all the more because of Baxter's references, some direct and others more oblique, to that director's masterpieces. While the novel is in no sense a classic mystery, reading it has the feel of trying to assemble the pieces of an elusive, even multidimensional, puzzle. Baxter has created a brooding, atmospheric work that lingers in the mind in a vaguely unsettling way, like a half-forgotten dream.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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