Predatory love wreaks havoc on two lives in the latest novel from Baxter (Saul and Patsy, 2003, etc.).
Nathaniel Mason is a grad student in Buffalo in 1973. He’s going to a party with a beautiful fellow student, Theresa; they’ve just met, and Nathaniel’s intrigued. The party throbs with “hysterical intellectualism”; its high priest is the impossibly brainy Jerome Coolberg, who draws Nathaniel into his circle. Though Theresa and Jerome are lovers, the latter now becomes obsessed with Nathaniel; he starts appropriating his life story and even stealing his clothes. An open, innocent Midwesterner, Nathaniel is an easy mark. He helps out at a kitchen for down-and-outs where he meets Jamie, a lesbian sculptor and cabdriver. In this world of fluid sexual identities, he sleeps with both Theresa and Jamie until, wham! He plunges headlong into the magnificent confusion of first love—for Jamie. A fire destroys the kitchen; Jamie is raped by a gang and leaves town; Nathaniel has a breakdown but, sheltered by his family, makes a very slow recovery. Years later, Nathaniel is a solid citizen with a family of his own: A devoted, guileless wife and two teenage sons. Out of the blue, Jerome calls. He has found the perfect niche as host of a public radio show, burrowing into the lives of his guests; he insists Nathaniel visit him in Los Angeles. During their reunion it emerges that Jerome was behind the attack on Jamie, of whom he was insanely jealous. He thought he could control the narrative of Nathaniel’s life and has kept tabs on him ever since. The problem here is that Jerome doesn’t radiate the sinister power he should, and the meeting is an anti-climax. The antidote to Jerome’s poison is compassionate love, and Baxter excels at highlighting its manifestations.
Structural weaknesses aside, a subtle, engaging novel.