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TC Boyle
Talk Talk
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006

Viking / Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First
ISBN 0-670-03770-2
352 Pages; $25.95
Publication Date: 07-06-2006
Date Reviewed: 11-20-06

Index: General Fiction  Mystery  Horror

We humans are great at inventing new things to make our lives easier. And scarier. Electronic cash, computerized identity, credit cards, and online services for just about anything all contribute to make life more convenient and enjoyable. Unless. Of course, for every upside there's not just a downside but a down-slide, the traditional slippery slope from which there seems to be no escape. And that's just the place, that down-slide, where the things that make us human and define our character come to light. When push comes to shove, whether you pussh back, tell someone to shove it, or simply try to let bygones be bygones tells the world who you are in no uncertain terms. Adversity may not breed character, but it certainly exposes it.

TC Boyle is a writer who concerns himself with that intersection of character and action, the point where what we are and what we do become one in the same. 'Talk Talk', his latest novel, offers readers a chance to immerse themselves in characters, actions, and the terrorizing potential for mischief in today's money-market world. The result is a gripping novel of toe-tapping tension and big-as-life-and-just-as-unpleasant characters. Though Boyle's novel hits all the grace notes of great thriller, all the high points of literary crime fiction, the focus is first and foremost on those inventive humans, on how pig-headedness gets us both in and out of trouble. With great convenience, it seems, comes great irresponsibility.

Dana Halter is a nice-looking woman of thirty-three, smart and deaf. She teaches at a high-falutin' school for the deaf and while running late one morning runs a stop sign. She's hauled off to jail because apparently, "Dana Halter" is wanted on multiple felony charges. Her boyfriend, Bridger, manages to get her out of jail but not out of trouble, because her identity has been stolen by one William "Peck" Wilson. Law enforcement is unwilling and unable to help her, so she and Bridger head out on the road to track down the man who has become Dana Halter. Halter is smart and mad as hell; Bridger is smart and worried as hell. Wilson is smart and scared as hell. Hell gets a lot bigger in 'Talk Talk'. Boyle lets the characters drive the plot and the collision that will occur is inevitable and fraught with tension; the path to the conclusion is a series of character revelations that are as thrilling as the crime-fiction plot elements.

As the focal point of the novel, Dana Halter is surprisingly unpleasant and unlikable. She's deaf and she sort of has a chip on her shoulder about it, giving Boyle a chance to broach the whole debate about cochlear implants. Mostly, however, Dana is angry. Understandably so, yes, but her anger takes her beyond sympathy and almost beyond admiration. She's fear driven as well, since she's seen how quickly and thoroughly her life can go to hell once someone starts to drive her finances into the toilet. The same companies that have thrived off of her custom are quick to turn their bureaucracies against her, so the drive she internalizes proves to be required. Ultimately there's a hardheadedness that earns her the reader's understanding, if not sympathy. Bridger, her boyfriend, seems in contrast a bit ineffectual. This not because he is in fact ineffectual, but because he's clearly not as invested in every sense, as is Dana. Bridger's struggles involve his work as a special effect technician, giving Boyle the opportunity to play with layers of reality and suggestion and symbol in manner that is both pithy and entertaining.

The true masterpiece of 'Talk Talk' is William "Peck" Wilson, one of the greatest villains you're likely to see in the world of crime fiction. Boyle delves into his psyche in detail and creates a sympathetic yet repugnant example of modern narcissism. In fact, when we first meet him, he's arguably more sympathetic than his victim, Dana Halter. It's a very cagey and exquisite bit of writing by Boyle. He plunges us so thoroughly into the perceptions of his antagonist, who is worried about his kids and his wife, that we feel sort of sorry for him, even though he's living as lie that is destroying the life of an innocent woman.

With 'Talk Talk', Boyle mines a peculiar vein of economic horror, terrorizing us with the potential for the destruction of our personal financial lives. It's worth noting that that the "William Wilson" is the title of a story by Edgar Allen Poe about a man who is tormented by his doppelganger. Of course, this William Wilson is himself a sort of fiscal doppelganger, and he's quite effective at terrorizing the reader as well as those around him. But Boyle's novel grows entirely out of the characters. The result is that it makes the genre fiction elements — the horror of the financial consequences and the crime fiction that creates those consequences — that much more effective. To be sure, Boyle has done his research, and he meticulously and entertainingly doles out the details of the scams used to steal identity, taking the process to the ultimate level; not just identity theft, but identity takeover. Here’s the novel that's going to inspire you buy a shredder.

'Talk Talk' is a literary novel about identity, about fear, about the consequences within our lives of the ways in which we finance them. But it is also quite funny. Boyle's sense of humor informs every perception and the result is that he can talk about the things that scare us the most, that depress us the most, that affect us the most, and make his point without seeming heavy-handed. Perceptive readers will realize the immense skill that goes into making a novel like this. 'Talk Talk' offers smart dialogue and smart action. It's a seamless thriller that keeps you laughing and turning the pages. But the wheels it starts turning within you will not stop once you put the novel down. Like any well-wrought piece of literature, 'Talk Talk' keeps talking to the reader by means of informing the reader's vision of the world. Readers will find it easy to keep listening.

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