A novel about friendship, memory, and the chaotic effects of intellectual trickery, The Soul Thief begins as graduate student Nathaniel Mason walks barefoot through a tiny park in the center of Buffalo, rabidly clutching his beer. Full of ideas about life and love, this self-confessed and rather neurotic scholar meets a young girl by the name of Theresa who charms Nathaniel with her wildly flashing eyes.
At first glance, Theresa comes across as rebellious, a girl from the other side of the tracks who could probably cause trouble and has no interest in all that bourgeois "drabby small talk." But
what most attracts Nathaniel to Theresa is that she possesses a spirit of anarchy,
making Nathaniel want to spend more time with her and accompany her to a party.
Among the booze and the dope, the Seventies rock music and talk of the Vietnam War, Nathaniel meets Jerome Coolberg, a sharp, cynical, acid-tongued thinker who engulfs Nathaniel with his intellectual diatribes. A man who "oozes both virtuosity and unsourced ideas," his appearances have an illusory but powerful electrical discharge, especially for the naive Nathaniel.
Theresa has a different reaction to Jerome and warns Nathaniel to stay away from him. She sees a man full of sinister intent
who should not be trusted under any circumstances: "he could be dangerous, he's the first person I've known who can be in two places at once." Jerome is especially intent to test Nathaniel's academic mettle through his telling of myths and legends, and also by telling of his recent dreams in an effort to claim everybody else's ideas as he own.
Theresa remains positive, however, that Coolberg is out to claim Nat's life. Fortunately for Nathaniel, he only has eyes for Therese, who begins to create a desire in him that makes him "sick with an alcoholic lust." With Nathaniel thinking he's forming an enlightened love, he begins to spend more time with Therese, visiting an art gallery and walking into a mirrored room where Nathaniel achieves a strange epiphany when he sees the two of them submerged and immersed in glass.
The affair blossoms, but Nathaniel's love for Theresa is ultimately contaminated by his doubts about her vaguely empty character. Still, he can't resist her nervous wit, or her cat-like purring. But it is to Jamie, a lesbian cab driver and sculptor,
who Nathaniel proves to be most attracted to when she walks into The People's Kitchen where Nat has been helping serve meals to the underprivileged. Possessed of a certain physical apathy, Jamie seems to seize Nathaniel, their affair a prelude to a series of bizarre happenings and weird events that suddenly drop into his life.
Nathaniel comes to the steady realization that life is beginning to take on a variety of hidden meanings,
but a night out at Niagara Falls with Coolberg holds the most impact for Nathaniel. Bribing him "to see the gods come out," Jerome begins to narrate a plot summary of the book he's writing, one that takes place entirely at night. Nat
is in it, the story of a young man, a student, "a somewhat fever brained type," who loves two women at the same time.
Trapped in an impossible conundrum, in two sets of arms – Theresa and Jamie's
- Nathaniel finds himself falling into a sense of denial where he's in danger of losing his identity. Something has changed for Nathaniel, his eventual breakdown in this early part of the story accompanied by the realization that there's something new and perhaps strangely not quite right with the way he sees himself and others.
When the action moves to New York thirty years later, we see a different, much more sedate Nathaniel. Still academically minded and possessed of a singular intelligence, he now lives as a largely respectable married man with two young boys, even though he's had to struggle financially. Meanwhile, Jerome is now a rumpled and middle-aged NPR talk-back radio host living a hardscrabble life in Los Angeles
- but still, after all these years, obsessed with his young friend's life.
Hardly a reliable narrator, Nathaniel (and by association the reader) is left to ponder some heavy metaphysical quandaries while also sorting through the riddles of identity, what is real and what is not as the story comes to an ironic climax on Santa Monica Pier. When Jerome unexpectedly walks back into Nathaniel's life and Nathaniel actually visits him in Los Angeles, the reader is forced to acknowledge that much of what Nathaniel says should be taken at face value.
Only at the end of the novel does Nathaniel's previous life in Buffalo take on a dream-like quality, the memories in the form of nightly visitations from those people and occasions: "my dream callers carrying their deadness around with them." Part of the essential riddle of this novel is that Nathaniel gradually comes to feel as though he's been living in some kind of Hollywood movie, with the queasy recognition that he's perhaps one of those characters
who Jerome dreamed up in one of his fantastical plots all those years ago.