Wednesday, October 21, 2015

the last book I read

Talk Talk by TC Boyle.

Dana Halter is making the best of the cards life has dealt her: profoundly deaf, she's making a living as a teacher at a school for the deaf, and she's on her way there via a stop-off at the dentist when her life falls apart. Stopped by a traffic policeman for the relatively minor infraction of running a stop-light, she's somewhat surprised to glance up after he's gone to run her licence through the computer to see him bellowing (silently) and pointing his gun at her.

It turns out Dana Halter is wanted for various crimes in several states; places in the main that Dana Halter has never been. Well, not this Dana Halter, anyway. Once the inevitable communication and mutual comprehension difficulties have been resolved it becomes clear that Dana has been the victim of identity theft. And so, after much delay and frustration, and landed with a bill of several hundred dollars for getting her car back from where it was impounded, Dana is free to go.

For all the heartache and inconvenience Dana has been caused, not to mention the damage to her future creditworthiness, investigating the crime doesn't seem to be a high priority for the police. Dana's life experiences have given her an uncompromising streak, though, and with a bit of help from her boyfriend Bridger Martin she locates the man who's stolen her identity and sets off across the country in pursuit.

The man who's stolen Dana's identity, Peck Wilson, has made something of a career out of it, and built a comfortable lifestyle on the back of it - nice car, expensive kitchen equipment, nubile Russian girlfriend, things he's understandably reluctant to give up. So when he realises the jig is up with the Dana Halter identity, he simply takes out a load of new credit in Bridger Martin's name and flees across country to New York state, with his (now slightly suspicious, but quelled with some shiny new trinkets) Russian girlfriend and her daughter in tow.

But Dana has the bit between her teeth now, and isn't going to take buggering off to the opposite side of the country for an answer. So she pursues him, Bridger in tow. The trouble is, both parties are so fuelled by relentless rage - Dana at the invasion of her life, and more generally the uncomprehending bullshit she has to put up with from the hearing world every day, Peck by his sense of entitlement to his comfortable lifestyle and his sense of it being due payment for having been wronged by the world and generally unappreciated in his former life - that they haven't really considered what they're going to do when the inevitable confrontation happens.

Actually, this is the problem with the book itself - as thrillingly as Boyle sets the plot up in the first few chapters, you get the impression he didn't really know what to do with it thereafter. Even if you can get past the fundamental implausibility of Dana and Bridger not going straight to the police when the fraudster is discovered, but instead phoning him up and tipping him off that they're onto him, you then have to endure a lengthy cross-country pursuit with no real idea what the purpose of it is, or what the protagonists imagine is going to happen at the end of it. And pretty clearly Boyle has no more idea than the rest of us, since the ending, once a couple of key confrontations have happened, is pretty unsatisfactory.

Just as in Riven Rock, though, Boyle is good at characters with a bit of light and shade and moral ambiguity - Dana is a blameless individual and clearly the injured party here, but a lifetime of enduring quizzical looks from people who assume she's mentally deficient has left her with a short fuse and a simmering sense of injustice, and Peck, while clearly a career criminal with a similarly short fuse, isn't completely irredeemable. There's not a huge amount about the details of how identity fraud works, but it's really just a MacGuffin to get the plot going anyway, and an excess of detail would probably have made for a duller book.

Dull is a thing TC Boyle, one of my favourite contemporary novelists, is incapable of being, and this is very entertaining and readable throughout, but it isn't one of his best books. I'd start with Drop City and The Tortilla Curtain if I were you.

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