Quite a few people could write a thriller about identity theft (and no doubt several have), and almost as many could probably write a literary novel about a deaf woman and her difficulties negotiating with the hearing world. But who beside T.C. Boyle would decide to put both ideas together, and who else could pull it off with elegance and assurance? Boyle's latest novel, "Talk Talk," continues his recent hot streak in the long form (following "Drop City" and "The Inner Circle"). It sweeps the reader along as deftly as any good crime story, but it delivers us into uncharted territory, full of challenge and surprise.
The scam that kicks off the novel's action could well inspire a spike in paper shredder sales -- a sponsorship opportunity, if I've ever seen one. One Friday morning, Dana Halter, a deaf schoolteacher, gets pulled over by a cop for rolling past a stop sign in her Southern California town. The next thing she knows, she's being cuffed, hauled off to jail, charged on multiple outstanding warrants in several counties she's never even visited and put under a no-bail hold. Her well-meaning hearing boyfriend, Bridger, who does digital grunt work in a cinematic special effects shop, can't roust a lawyer, so Dana spends a scary, dehumanizing weekend in the county jail.
Mug shots delivered to the court the following week reveal that the "Dana Halter" charged with the assorted crimes, including assault with a deadly weapon, is a man. Whoever he is, he's stolen enough of Dana's information to obtain a driver's license with her name on it. Then the collection agency calls start coming; the thief has maxed out several credit accounts, also in Dana's name. Various frustrating encounters with government agencies and law enforcement officials ensue, and Dana and Bridger find themselves at a crossroads. They can deal with this by the book -- writing endless letters to credit agencies and filing endless forms -- or they can track the guy down themselves.
Meanwhile, alternating chapters describe the luxe life of William "Peck" Wilson, known to everyone around him as Dr. Dana Halter. Peck, who's really a small-time restaurateur turned ex-con from upstate New York, drives a BMW and enjoys the view from his Marin County, Calif., home with Natalia, a premium specimen of gold-digging, post-Soviet arm candy. He feels he's finally gotten what he deserves after years of what he perceives as mistreatment at the hands of the world -- everyone in general and his ex-wife in particular. He still has a hard time controlling his temper, but life is sweet.
The body of "Talk Talk" describes Dana's pursuit of Peck, a quest that soon has both couples racing cross-country by car. Dana's outrage is visceral, and who can blame her? Peck has stolen an identity that she's fiercely wrested from an inhospitable world. Along the journey, she finds herself having to order meals from or explain herself to a series of hearing people who give her "the interplanetary stare" and make her feel "like some animal on a leash." Even with Bridger, who signs clumsily, she tends to fall away from full communication. (Lip-reading, the novel points out, is not nearly as easy as it's depicted in the movies.)
It's Peck, however, who is the novel's great achievement, a character both frightening and pathetic, funny and infuriating, a masterly depiction of the kind of man who does very bad things with an impervious, resentful righteousness. (At one point, he rages at a graffiti-covered train station, "where were the cops when you needed them? Why weren't they nailing the little punks with their spray cans instead of busting his ass?") As far as Peck is concerned, he's finally corrected the terrible injustice of his former insignificance, and when Dana and Bridger come along to mess it up, he's every bit as indignant as they are. And this is a guy who can't countenance the slightest challenge: "Maybe other people -- the losers of the world -- could turn the other cheek, bow their heads, suck it up, but he couldn't. He had too much pride for that. Too much -- what would you call it? -- self-respect, self-love. Or confidence, confidence was a better word."
What also emerges as the two couples converge in a small town on the Hudson River, is that Dana's pride doesn't differ all that much from Peck's. Like him, she's fought to compel other people to see her as she wants to be seen, often at the cost of not seeing anything else very clearly. Like him, she's prepped to interpret the tiniest gesture as an insult. Like him, she flies off the handle and behaves recklessly to her own disadvantage. The novel's title, "Talk Talk," refers to an expression the deaf have about what happens when they get together -- a torrent of communication unleashed in people who usually find communication difficult and incomplete. When Dana and Peck finally and truly meet, they don't "talk talk" -- they can't -- but some profound communication happens anyway, and both are shaken by it.
"Talk Talk" is smart and suspenseful, so much so that many readers may not even notice how beautifully crafted it is. Boyle has a way with flashy but apt metaphors -- a private detective whose hair is "gel-slicked and glistening like the nose of something emerging from the sea"; a Utah motel room "frigid and dark, as remote from the world as a space capsule silently drifting across the universe." But even more pleasing is the way that Peck, a gourmet cook who clearly missed his calling when his restaurant went belly up, tends to think in terms of his erstwhile profession. Tension slides away from him "like a wet coat in the foyer of a very good restaurant"; sailboats on the Hudson remind him of "clean white napkins on a big blue tablecloth." This is how great fiction writing works, not by calling too much attention to itself, but by marshaling every word to the cause of making the characters and their story real.