Charles Baxter’s latest novel is a short and creepy one. A grad student, Nathaniel Mason, gets sucked into the vortex of a sinister fellow student with an unlikely name:
“He himself was Jerome Coolberg. A preposterous moniker, nonfictional, uninvented by him, an old man’s name, someone who totters through Prospect Park stabilized with a cane. No one ever called him “Jerry.” It was always “Jerome” or “Coolberg.” He insisted on both for visibility and because as names they were as dowdy as a soiled woolen overcoat. Still, like the coat, the name seemed borrowed from somewhere. All his appearances had an illusionary but powerful electrical charge. But the electricity was static electricity and went nowhere, though it could maim and injure.”
Baxter captures the atmosphere of a college town in the 70s: the cars, the clothes, the philsophical arguments at parties. Here he describes the night Nathaniel meets both Coolberg and Theresa, the woman who becomes a love interest to both men:
“On a cool autumn night in Buffalo, New York, the rain has diminished to a mere streetlight-hallucinating drizzle, and Nathaniel Mason has taken off his sandals and carries them in one hand, the other holding a six-pack of Iroquois Beer sheltered against his stomach like a marsupial’s pouch. He advances across an anonymous park toward a party whose address was given to him over the phone an hour ago by genially drunk would-be scholars. On Richmond? Somewhere near Richmond. Or Chenango. These young people his own age, graduate students like himself, have gathered to drink and to socialize in one of this neighborhood’s gigantic old houses now subdivided into apartments. It is the early 1970s, days of ecstatic bitterness and joyfully articulated rage, along with fear, which is unarticulated. Life Against Death stands upright on every bookshelf.”
Before he knows it, Coolberg has insinuated his way into Nathaniel’s life, appropriating his new girlfriend, his notebook, even details of his past that he doesn’t remember telling him. Someone breaks into his apartment and steals Nathaniel’s shirts, which turn up on Coolberg. The two of them go to Niagara Falls one night with Theresa, at Coolberg’s suggestion. He initiates an existential trust game by the river, which both Nathaniel and Theresa initially resist, but end up playing. The alignment shifts; Theresa now allies with Coolberg against Nathaniel. This feels like the beginning of Nathaniel’s mental unraveling, which sends him into hiding, then into a very different (and much more muted) life, till Coolberg catches up with him decades later.