Like him or not, you can’t call T. Coraghessan Boyle lazy. Talk Talk, his 2006 novel about Dana Halter, a deaf woman who’s had her identity stolen and the resultant single-minded attempt to confront the man who did it, was his 11th novel since 1982’s Water Music. Coupled with the eight collections of short stories he had out at the time, that’s a lot of pages. For most of those pages, Boyle has shown himself to be a consummate wordsmith whose plots are always conveyed with an artisan’s sense of shade and nuance and a prankster’s sense of the ridiculous.
Talk Talk starts out like it had been shot out of a cannon, and Boyle adeptly conveys Halter’s headlong crash into the brick wall of a jaded and overworked judicial system. From the time she leaves the house, Halter is behind the eight ball, and we are barely hanging on, along for the ride: She was running late, always running late, a failing of hers, she knew it, but then she couldn’t find her purse and once she did manage to locate it (underneath her blue corduroy jacket on the coat tree in the front hall), she couldn’t find her keys.
We quickly learn what Halter is made of—she still worked harder than anyone she knew, driving herself with an internal whip that kept all her childhood wounds open and grieving in the flesh—when she is thrown in jail after a traffic stop reveals a veritable litany of bad behavior. None of it, of course, has anything to do with her. The real her.
Up until this point, the book is a horrifying trip through a Kafkaesque nightmare of identity theft, incarceration, and the painful aftermath of both. Boyle shows how tenuous our grip on the information we rely on to define ourselves can be in the modern, data-driven era. Boyle further plays with the concept of identity by giving Halter’s nemesis everything that she has worked for her whole life. Deep down, she has always only ever wanted to belong.
The other Dana Halter, a sociopath who started out as William Wilson, is accepted by the well-heeled Marin County society with whom he rubs elbows. Whether shopping with his Russian immigrant girlfriend, cooking up gourmet dinners in his Sausalito condo overlooking the bay, or going out to the best restaurants his attitude is—they knew him here—everybody knew him—and if there was a line of tourists or whoever, they always seated him the minute he walked in the door. Which was the way it should be. His money was good, he tipped large … and his girlfriend was a knockout—they should have paid him just to sit at the bar.
Halter soon sleuths Wilson out and enlists her somewhat immature boyfriend Bridger Martin into a half-baked scheme to find and confront the guy. Martin is not the vigilante type—all his life he’d cruised along … living a video existence, easy in everything and never happier than when he was sunk into the couch with a DVD or spooned into a plush seat in the theater with the opening credits rolling—but he rises to the occasion, putting his job as a digital effects jockey and, ultimately, his life on the line.
Wilson, however, is more like Halter than either would ever care to admit. Both of them have a chip on their shoulder the size of a stolen BMW Z4, and both are tenacious as hell—Wilson puts as much sheer determination and willpower into maintaining his farcical life as Halter, or anyone, puts into their real ones. Boyle often enjoys giving his anti-heroes the choicest parts, the most glamorous lives; in Talk Talk, he seems to enjoy tossing even that convention on its head. Wilson’s living the good life, but he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it any more than Halter enjoyed mixing with the drunks and prostitutes in the county lockup. The two have finally found, in each other, the perfect foils to blame for their insecurities and frustrations. Martin and Wilson’s girlfriend Natalia soon get dragged into the maelstrom.
After a cross-country chase that places the two principals back at the mercy of their respective mothers, Boyle seems to falter and becomes unwilling to bring the hunt to a suitable conclusion. At first I thought that, after embracing the thriller genre, he got nervous about being perceived as a hack and decided to end his book not with a bang but a whimper. Was it the right move for integrity’s sake? Perhaps. Does it deliver the much-needed payoff? No, not all. In fact it points out the glaring plot hole of “what did Halter expect to accomplish by chasing this guy across the continent?” Then I read somewhere that Boyle’s Ur-moment, when he knew that he had to write fiction, was after reading Robert Coover’s Pricksongs & Descants.
Coover’s stories are all about the unexpected, the set-up without the payoff we’ve come to anticipate—or all of them at once. Boyle simply left us a trail of breadcrumbs to follow into the forest, and while we were there, we got to think about the nature of identity and look at the scary trees. It’s not his fault if we weren’t tossed into an oven by some crazy bitch. Sometimes, shit doesn’t happen. And, that’s OK.