T.C. Boyle: Talk Talk

After Drop City, a sprawling masterpiece about an ill-fated Alaskan hippie settlement, and The Inner Circle, an exacting, historically rich portrait of sex scholar Alfred Kinsey, even an author of T.C. Boyle's considerable gifts would have trouble coming up with an encore. So rather than trying to top himself, Boyle shifts back a few gears with Talk Talk, a minor thriller about identity theft that evolves naturally into a study on the slippery nature of identity itself. When someone steals your credit information and starts a separate life in your name, do you feel like yourself any more? And if thieves make a living switching from one phony persona to the next, how much can they claim to be themselves? Needless to say, as victim and perpetrator draw closer in proximity, Boyle finds that their similarities are more striking than their differences.

The opening pages detail a nightmare of wrongful accusation: On her way to a teaching job at the San Roque School for the Deaf, Dana Halter gets stopped by a police officer for running a stop sign. Expecting to get off with a warning, she's instead handcuffed and thrown in jail for a laundry list of crimes she didn't commit. Despite the best efforts of her boyfriend Bridger Martin, Dana spends a weekend in jail—an experience made infinitely more harrowing by her deafness—before the court system figures out that another person has stolen her identity and is currently posing as Dana Halter. Nevertheless, enough damage has been done to cost her the teaching job and trap her credit in a bureaucratic forest. When a little amateur sleuthing reveals the thief to be William "Peck" Wilson, Dana and Bridger head off to Northern California and beyond to track him down. Only now, Peck is going by a new alias: Bridger Martin.

Loaded with shrewd observations on everything from a how-to lesson in professional identity fraud to cooking the perfect osso bucco, Talk Talk gets a lift from Boyle's offhand observation even as its thriller plotting goes a little stale. Cutting back and forth between Dana/Bridger and Peck, who isn't entirely unsympathetic as he grasps desperately at an expensive lifestyle, Boyle discovers an ugly common denominator in Dana and Peck's vengeful natures. Both feel violated, no matter that the latter has done most of the violating. Their conflict comes to an abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion, but Boyle's brisk pacing and typically delectable prose make even his letdowns seem improbably graceful.

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