By T. C. Boyle
Viking, 340 pp., $25.95
We tend to think of identity theft as a quintessentially contemporary crime, but the concept has traveled a long literary path.
In its earliest iteration, the struggle was to maintain one's essential character in the face of fate. The tension was provided by the uncertainty of who better understood that character, the individual struggling to hold on to it, or the world pushing him toward his destiny. Free will was identity, fate the thief, Oedipal wrecks the inevitable outcome.
When the thief becomes human -- a usurper, a replacement, a rival -- the issue is refocused. In works like Edith Wharton's ``The House of Mirth" (or, if you prefer, the fine film ``Trading Places"), the true culprit is a society in which identity is synonymous with social standing and people are replaceable. The hero's struggles revolve first around preserving a vanishing identity, and then around finding self-worth after status has been stripped away and reassigned to someone else.
The doppelganger is another face of the identity thief; in Joseph Conrad's ``The Secret Sharer" and Philip Roth's ``Operation Shylock," a mysterious double facilitates interior exploration; identity theft becomes the means through which the character grapples with his own dark side.
``Talk Talk," the latest novel from the prolific T. C. Boyle, addresses identity theft at its most literal: the individual with his hands on your Social Security number and credit report, writing bad checks in your name. If stories of stolen identity define the individual by what he most fears to lose (and to whom he fears to lose it), ``Talk Talk" posits a depressingly unexpansive -- if imminently recognizable -- take on humanity. Here, the nightmare has little to do with fate or reinvention, social mores or self-exploration. At stake, rather, is financial ruin, and the determination of a woman who refuses to be made a victim.
To some, Dana Halter is a victim already; she lost her hearing at the age of 4. She's never allowed herself a moment's self-pity, though, and in her early 30s leads a satisfying if emotionally clipped life as a teacher at a school for the deaf and an aspiring novelist. It is only when a routine traffic stop lands her in jail for a series of crimes she never committed that Dana learns her identity has been appropriated. After a hellish weekend behind bars, she emerges ready to chase down the mysterious criminal and set things right.
Dana enlists her hearing boyfriend, computer-programming peon Bridger Martin, and together the two of them set off on a quest to determine the villain's identity. They quickly smoke him out and get him on the run, and what follows is a cold pursuit that devolves into a tedious cross-country road trip (for both characters and reader) as they traverse the nation in the hopes of meeting the criminal at the destination to which the clues lead. Neither one is quite sure what they will do when they find him.
For a book whose central conceit is the reclamation of identity, both Dana and Bridger are tentative, flat characters. It's not so much that Boyle fails to render them as fully formed people; it's more that they're believably uninteresting. There's a mundanity to their thoughts, and to the prose that originates from their perspectives, Bridger's in particular. The specificity of observation and emotion that brings the best characters to life -- and with which previous Boyle novels like ``The Tortilla Curtain" and ``A Friend of the Earth" brim over -- is nowhere to be found. In its place are sentences like this description of Bridger's fears for Dana while she's in jail: ``He fought off the image of her locked up in a cell with . . . women who would mock her to her face, make demands, get physical with her." There is hardly an image in this ``image," and certainly nothing with the precision to compel.
Despite the drama of their circumstances and the wealth of small insights Dana's deafness affords, neither of ``Talk Talk" 's protagonists ever approaches the outsize presence of their quarry, William ``Peck" Wilson. The alternating chapters told from his perspective are compelling, and even Peck's supporting cast -- his Russian fiancee, Natalia; his mentor, Sandman; the former wife we meet in flashbacks revealing his path toward criminality -- possess a vitality that steals the show.
Peck is a sensualist, a lover of the best of everything who scorns the tastelessness of the world's ``losers" as he glides through life cooking gourmet meals and buying luxury cars and condos, all on other people's credit. An ex-con who learned the art of identity theft while in prison for a violent outburst, he has been living as Dana Halter for more than a year as the story opens.
Watching the strain of being hunted erode Peck's immaculately constructed life -- and his equally immaculate cool -- is riveting. He takes Dana and Bridger's pursuit personally, perhaps more personally than they do, and resolves to punish them for their attempts to punish him. Before long, he has abandoned Dana's identity and latched on to Bridger's instead.
Part of Peck's appeal comes from the level of interior richness Boyle imparts; we are able to fully inhabit the mind of this harried, cunning, disdainful man as he calculates the angles, moving with a confidence that is by turns remarkable and remarkably foolhardy. We are never entirely able to discern just how smart Peck is, or where his moral center lies, and this ambiguity stems not from authorial vagueness, but from Boyle's ability to make Peck simultaneously masterful and half a step from ruin. It is this level of complexity that one yearns for in the rest of ``Talk Talk"; too often, it seems as if Peck has robbed the other characters of more than just their identities.
Adam Mansbach's third novel, ``The End of the Jews," will be published by Spiegel & Grau/Random House in 2007.