Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, July 16, 2006


A Novel

By T. Coraghessan Boyle

Viking. 340 pp. $25.95

If stories about missing government laptops and hacked databases have got you shredding your bank statements and paying cash at restaurants, brace yourself for another jolt of paranoia. T. Coraghessan Boyle's new novel about identity theft is so perfectly aligned with the day's news that the FBI should search his house for stolen credit cards. Talk Talk grabs hold of the fragile structures that establish who we are and what we own and shakes them apart. Considering Boyle's recent subjects -- sex research (The Inner Circle), hippies (Drop City), environmental apocalypse (A Friend of the Earth) -- it's remarkable that his most exciting novel yet should focus on the tedium of ruined credit scores and fraudulent drivers' licenses. But Talk Talk benefits from Boyle's highbrow/lowbrow style: He knows how to drill down through the surface of everyday life into our core anxieties, and he knows how to write constantly charging, heart-thumping chase scenes.

"She was running late," the novel opens, and she and the novel rarely stop running for the next 340 pages. Dana Halter is a deaf woman and a proud, conscientious teacher at a school for the deaf. When a police officer stops her for driving through a red light one morning, her main concern is that she'll miss an appointment. But then she sees him in the rearview mirror, gun drawn, barking orders at her. In a flash he yanks her from the car, shoves her face into the hood and clamps cuffs on her. "He was brisk, brutal, sparing nothing," Boyle writes. "There might have been questions, orders, a meliorating softness in his tone, but she couldn't hear and she couldn't see his face -- and her hands, her hands were caught like fish on a stringer." For Dana, this is the beginning of a life-wrecking encounter with local government -- an experience made all the more Kafkaesque by the fact that no one is willing to listen to her toneless speech or speak to her in a way she can understand. "There must be some mistake," she keeps yelling. "Don't you know who I am?"

That question haunts the entire novel. Boyle begins with the merely bureaucratic elements of identity, but soon he teases out the more profound ramifications of who we are and how we prove it. Just by dragging Dana into the station and chaining her to a bench, the police transform her from a respected teacher of the deaf, with a PhD in English literature, to a "freak of nature, a talking dolphin or a ventriloquist's dummy come to life . . . just another criminal -- another perp -- one more worthless case to be locked away and ignored." When someone who speaks sign language finally arrives, Dana learns that she's wanted in multiple counties, over two states, for crimes ranging from auto theft to possession of a controlled substance to assault with a deadly weapon. It's clear that she's a victim of identity theft -- those warrants for Dana Halter are for a man, after all -- but the humiliation she suffers is no less real, and the wheels of justice must keep turning through the correct procedures no matter how senseless. "The onus is on you to defend yourself," a counselor tells Dana.

Boyle is very good at choreographing the ghastly cascade of complications that can bury a person. With the same research and descriptive skill that's allowed him to bring historical periods alive, he takes us to those ordinary, contemporary places we all know about but rarely see: the county jail, the criminal courtroom, the impound yard, that great tangle of legal services that we're vaguely in favor of -- if we're aware of them at all -- until we're snagged up in them ourselves and robbed of that most precious commodity: time.

Because she's arrested on a Friday, Dana ends up spending the weekend in jail, a frightening experience that inflames her with a deep rage. When she finally arrives back at school, she's fired, which makes her anger burn even hotter. Determined to track down the man who caused all these problems, she asks her boyfriend, a special-effects artist named Bridger Martin, for help. How marvelously apropos that when Bridger gets her call, he's busy "working on a head replacement" -- using a computer to superimpose the face of an actor over the white helmet of a stuntman. It's a witty expression of Boyle's larger theme about the instability of identity, a theme he fleshes out in fascinating ways once Dana and Bridger begin their cross-country search for the man who ruined her life.

At this point, the novel begins periodically switching to the story of William "Peck" Wilson, who has been using the name Dana Halter for the past two years. Boyle followed this structure in what remains his most popular novel, The Tortilla Curtain, as he moved back and forth between the tales of a Mexican immigrant and a frightened suburbanite, but here the antagonists would seem to be on very different moral grounds, a situation that makes his treatment of the criminal that much more provocative.

Peck is a tough, proud man who lost his daughter and restaurant in an acrimonious divorce and learned the simple tricks of identity theft in prison. (Looking for quick cash? Boyle lays out these techniques with helpful clarity.) When we meet Peck, he's living well on strangers' credit, all easily accessed over the Internet: "His money was good," Boyle writes, "he tipped large, he always dressed in a nice Armani jacket when he came in for dinner and his girlfriend was a knockout." He wants nothing more than to feel "the quiet seep of fulfillment and domestic bliss." After all, he's only taking those Army recruitment ads one step further: "Be anybody you can be." As Dana and Bridger close in on him, it's not just his clothes, his car and his beautiful condo that are at risk, it's his sense of himself as a respected, successful person. Yes, he's a hothead, a snob and a thief, but Talk Talk works because Boyle brings us in close enough to smell Peck sweat. His refined tastes are our tastes, his suburban dreams are our dreams, his professional aspirations are our aspirations -- the only problem is that his money is our money.

In Boyle's daringly sympathetic portrayal, Peck is just as outraged at Dana and Bridger as they are at him. "He hated being forced out," Boyle writes, "hated the miserable interfering sons of bitches who'd come after him and turned everything upside down." The law may be on their side, but Peck's not giving up without a fight, and he knows a lot more about fighting than either the English teacher or the computer nerd. In the alternating chases that threaten exposure or violence, the excitement is not so much doubled as squared.

Even in the midst of these tire-squealing scenes, though, Boyle keeps sounding out the issues that deepen this novel. For all her justified outrage at Peck's illicit way of life, Dana is engaged in her own conflicted program of personal revision: She proudly insists that being deaf is an integral part of her identity, a part she wouldn't change, a part Bridger must accept and love. "This is me," she pleads with him. But at the same time, she has devoted all her energy to passing as a hearing person. Her bitterest moments come when she realizes that someone she's talking to has detected her difference.

The current perils of Internet security give Talk Talk a timely hook, but there's nothing ephemeral about the novel. After all, one of the oldest stories in Western culture turns on identity theft and credit fraud. When Jacob put that goat skin on his arms and tricked his father into giving him the blessing meant for Esau, the problem wasn't poor password protection; it was our insatiable desire to be and have more than we deserve. In this bracing novel, Boyle makes that problem loud and clear.

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

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