T.C. Boyle is, of course, immensely successful as well as a very good writer. The two don’t always go together. I picked up Talk Talk with abundant expectations–which were not entirely rewarded.
He’s created quite a cast, and the book’s problem, identity theft, is a fascinating one. Although it’s not a how-to primer on stealing peoples’ life and money, it provides an alarming look into what happens to perp and victim. Believe me, you don’t want to be the victim. It’s a mess and there’s not much help available.
The perp is an anger-issue, confidence-challenged ex-con named Peck Wilson who assumes the credit-and-checking-account essentials of one Dana Halter, a deaf teacher of the deaf. (We also get nice insights into what life is like for the deaf here. He’s big on this kind of thing. We spent Tortilla Curtain, for example with homeless illegal immigrants in an L.A. area canyon.) Halter begins reaping the consequences of the theft in a dramatic and disturbing opening scene where she runs a stop sign, then is cuffed and arrested by the officer who discovers a number of outstanding warrants when he runs her name through his system. Her three days in jail are brutal, mystifying, and a testament to the vagaries of a justice system that only nominally honors the innocent-till-proven dictum.
Once out of jail, she and her boy friend, Bridger Martin, set about trying to do what the police are too busy to help with–track down Peck Wilson. Their investigation and chase make for suspenseful and page-turning reading. We alternate between chapters on the ID robber and the pursuing couple as the path goes from central to northern CA, then all the way across the country. It’s at the point where Dana and Bridger discover Wilson’s true identity in his Hudson River valley home town that Boyle fails the “reasonable person” theory of plot construction in a number of places.
The person who identifies that unidentified picture they’ve been futilely showing people from coast to coast was a victim of identity theft by Wilson also. Yet, he tells D&B the guy’s name and promptly disappears from the book. No attempt at revenge (despite his anger) no going to the police. Nothing. Apparently, he tells them the address where Peck Wilson grew up then goes back to his bartending without another thought on the matter.
Now that they know the thief’s name and that he is a local, they do not go to the police. It was understandable that they did not do this before. The way Dana was treated in jail, the repeated assertions by a number of people that the cops are too busy with murders and rapes to be bothered spending scarce resources on this kind of “victimless” lawbreaking. However, they now have all the facts they need to make it easy. Instead they go after the guy themselves with results I won’t go into here in case you want to read it. However, they’re not entirely positive.
In addition, right after they learn the ID and location of the perp, they let a minor auto accident take them back to NYC (Dana’s mother’s place) for a little R&R. Not only does this make the suspense sag, but it’s not credible that they’ve come three thousand miles pedal to the metal then stop for a little picnic when their goal is in sight.
Despite these annoying flaws, however, Boyle takes us into the mind and thought process of a number of superbly-created characters: and the relationships he sets up are masterfully drawn. The ending is a nice touch which, again, I won’t reveal for reasons stated above. So I’m not sorry I read this, just sorry it wasn’t a bit better. Hope Boyle hasn’t started faxing in his performance.