Saturday, June 20, 2009

Book review: Talk Talk - a novel by T.C. Boyle

The threat of identity theft is everywhere these days. You password-protect your computer; you shred sensitive documents; you tear up receipts and unwanted credit card applications. But it happens. And when it does, the ramifications are vast and unforgiving.

Talk Talk is the story of it happening. Dana Halter, a pretty young PhD with a cushy job teaching English in a private deaf school, gets pulled over for rolling through a stop sign. When the cop runs her license, she is immediately arrested for passing bad checks, auto theft, possession of a controlled substance, assault with a deadly weapon, etc., etc. – multiple counts in three California counties plus Nevada. Her plea of “I’ve never even been to Nevada!” falls on unhearing ears and she is thrown into prison. It is days before her hearing boyfriend, Bridger, a computer graphic designer, manages to clear up the mistaken identity and she is released with a cursory apology for the inconvenience.

Once Dana gets out, things go from bad to worse. Her credit is completely shot and her bank accounts cleaned out; it costs her hundreds of dollars to get her car released from impound – with no possible reimbursement despite the fact that she was mistakenly arrested. She is even fired from her teaching position and cast aside, lost. Complicating things further is her deafness: she can speak, but atonally which sounds awkward to hearing folk. Although she needs a lot of help to reclaim her identity, she finds that the hearing people are less than fully helpful because they assume that she’s weird or, worse, retarded.

Boyle introduces us to the thief as well: William “Peck” Wilson, a petty criminal from upstate New York with way more smarts than your average bear. While in prison, Peck learns of the untold riches of identity theft and embarks upon his true calling. He’s very good at it, easily accumulating multiple identities, fancy homes and luxury automobiles. His sexy Russian girlfriend doesn’t know his real name – thinks he’s “Dana Halter” – but he drapes her in jewels and designer clothes, and what she doesn’t know doesn’t hurt him.

The bulk of Talk Talk is a cross-county chase with Dana and Bridger on Peck’s trail. The novel is well-plotted and moves along at a brisk pace. The characters are fully realized, rounded people, each of them developing through the course of the story. Dana, while clearly the victim, is sometimes an unpleasant person: stubborn, bitter, proud, ungrateful. Amazingly, Peck is very nearly a sympathetic character, despite the havoc he has wreaked on Dana and Bridger’s lives. Peck longs for the daughter he lost to a vindictive ex-wife; he loves to cook and has a gourmand’s tastes. When Dana first tracks him down, his distress at the discovery is palpable and I almost felt sorry for him, faced with the collapse of the life he’d built so painstakingly.

Interwoven with the plot is an elegant discussion of language. Boyle presents so many different ways and means of communication - spoken words, American Sign Language, computer code, the Russian girlfriend's broken English, Peck's inadvertant lapse into old idiom when he finds himself unexpectedly back home - but in the end, the humans always seem to end up misunderstanding one another.

It was such a joy, a relief even, to read this book after the last one. Boyle is a wonderful writer, energetic and inventive. His sentences are artworks – layered, descriptive, and well-paced. After I read the first chapter, I stopped and immediately re-read it from the beginning, just to savor the words. My brother read Talk Talk - to the exclusion of all other activities, nearly – while on a recent family vacation, then handed it off to my father who was also completely entranced by the book. I wholeheartedly recommend Talk Talk as one of the most interesting and entertaining novels I have ever read. And that’s not just talk.

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