MINNEAPOLIS " Every writer from Edgar Allan Poe to Rod Serling has explored the literary theme of a doppelganger stealing a person's identity. For author Charles Baxter, it's an idea that was ripe for an update.
"We're in a time when people can concoct an identity, if they want to, on the Web," Baxter says. "There's nothing to keep you, in a way, from being somebody you are not if you're not actually meeting people in real life."
Baxter makes the fear of stolen identity the centerpiece of his new book, "The Soul Thief," and he knows what it's like because his own name was appropriated.
When he started his writing career 27 years ago, Baxter would send his manuscripts to a friend, who would critique them. This went on for a year or two, until he discovered that his friend was posing as Baxter at readings.
"He would get up and he would read my work," Baxter says. He found out about the ruse when his friend confessed. "He said, 'I have a terrible thing to tell you. I've been telling everyone I'm Charles Baxter.' And I said, 'Well, you'll have to tell them that you're not."'
Wanting to become someone else is "a human wish," he says during an interview at his town house.
"You want to be the Great Gatsby. You don't want to be Jay Gatz, a kid from the farm. You want to be a glamorous guy with a big house with nice parties and a lot of money " the kind of guy who gets the girl. Why not, you know?"
But he quickly adds: "It's the way of the sociopath."
In "The Soul Thief," Nathaniel Mason is a graduate student in Buffalo, N.Y., in the early 1970s when an obnoxious boy genius named Jerome Coolberg worms his way into Mason's life. Mason's shirts and other clothing begin disappearing from his shabby apartment " a junkie hired by Mason's artsy girlfriend Theresa is stealing them, apparently for Coolberg, who is obsessed with Mason.
Mason suffers a breakdown and awakes to find his apartment ransacked. The book flashes forward a few decades. Mason is living in New Jersey with his wife and two sons when Coolberg, now a public radio show host in Los Angeles, summons him out to the coast. The book builds to an ending with a twist.
"Very often, when somebody does this to somebody else, mayhem results," Baxter says, citing Patricia Highsmith thrillers "Strangers on a Train" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
"In my novel, there is violence," Baxter says. "I don't think these transactions can take place without some blood on the floor."
Dan Frank, Baxter's editor at Pantheon Books, said "The Soul Thief," which hit the shelves in February with between 18,000 and 20,000 copies, can be read as a straightforward story " a testament to Baxter's writing abilities.
"He can tell a story that's a very good read and these questions (about identity theft) can be in the background without being didactic or the subject of a sermon," said Frank, who has worked with Baxter for a decade.
Baxter opens the novel in Buffalo, where he was a grad student, because that city is an "example of the old America we used to have, where things are made," he says. The action moves to Los Angeles, where "images and identities are manufactured."
"And I thought, 'This is the kind of America that we're getting in screen culture " people trying or actually managing to become other people,"' says Baxter. With his beard, wire-rimmed glasses and gray herringbone sport jacket, the 60-year-old looks the part of a graduate school teacher, which he is at the University of Minnesota.
Baxter had his own experience with Hollywood with the movie adaptation of his acclaimed 2000 novel, "The Feast of Love," a National Book Award finalist about people falling in love at a coffee shop. Despite an Academy Award-winning director (Robert Benton) and a name cast that included Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear and Selma Blair, "Feast of Love" sank with mixed reviews and poor box office last fall.
"There were a lot of good people with good intentions involved in that film," Baxter says.
Compressing the book's five major plots into a movie may have been the problem. Allison Burnett, a novelist who adapted "The Feast of Love" for the screen, said it was a challenge to figure out what to cut from Baxter's book, and that he thought the author "liked the adaptation."
Burnett said the R-rated film suffered from marketing that misled moviegoers and critics "into thinking it was a frothy, inconsequential romantic comedy."
Now Baxter is not sure he'll sell the rights to his works again.
"You know the money is nice " I did cash the check for 'The Feast of Love.' But unless I had ... script approval rights, I don't think I'd do it," he says. "It's my name. It's their movie, but it's my name on the credits."
But he shrugs off the experience.
"For me, the big thing is the book. I understand the power that movies have in our culture. But basically, I'm a book guy," he says. "You know, it's a big deal for me for a book to come out. And unless a movie is really great, I think, 'Eh, it's a movie. What do you expect?' "