Stealing you

Tom and Huck were small-time dreamers compared with the characters of T.C. Boyle’s fiction. His get-rich-quick schemers have done everything under the sun to make a buck, from growing marijuana (Budding Prospects) to telling Americans how to get thin (The Road to Wellville). It was only a matter of time before he hit on the mother lode of modern scams: identity theft.

Talk Talk is the result, and it’s one of Boyle’s swiftest novels yet. The book conjures a deaf high-school teacher named Dana Halter who discovers someone has been abusing her good name. This Dana Halter is a man wanted in several counties for passing bad checks, assault with a deadly weapon and a host of other unsavory offenses. His real name is Peck Wilson.

More and more Americans have become familiar with untangling comparable messes. But if you’re new to the notion, Talk Talk presents a creepy primer on how identity theft is pulled off, from the redirection of mail to the application for new credit and the vanishing act that happens afterward, leaving the victim in debt and with a long slog before his or her name is cleared.

Boyle is wise to give us just enough information here, lingering instead on how such a crime will inspire revenge fantasies. Dana (the real one) finally extricates herself from the courts, but she wants to know, who is this guy? She has worked so hard to become the Dana Halter she is: a Ph.D. and a respected member of the community. She has overcome her disability, one Boyle portrays with exquisite sensitivity and insight.

Talk Talk really takes off when Boyle pits his two Danas on a collision course. As Dana and her boyfriend work their way east from San Roque, Calif., toward Peck’s lair, we get to know his mindset, his yen for easy living. Ironically, his vision of the good life resembles the yuppie lifestyle Dana aspires to. He likes fine wines and good views, German cars and top-shelf suits. “This was how life should be,” he thinks, sitting in a condo Dana (the real one) has paid for, “no hassles and strains and worries, time on your hands, time to stroll through the farmers’ market and the wine shop and have a cappuccino.”

Like many thrillers, Talk Talk relies heavily on flashbacks to establish a motive for its villain. Intriguingly, it does the same for its victims, too. As Dana and her boyfriend seek out the thief who has invaded their lives, the breach of personal dignity draws out every slight they’ve ever suffered, every indignity they had to endure. Just as Dana represents everything Peck has been denied; he begins to represent everyone and everything that has given them short shrift.

Boyle is so good at tying this moral pretzel into a knot, it’s a shame he isn’t quite so successful at untangling it. Still, Talk Talk is an entertaining, deeply thought-provoking book. America is the only country whose founding document guarantees its citizens the right to pursue happiness. Talk Talk shows how one of identity theft’s most basic irritations is that it steals the victim’s claim on that prize. Then, infraction by infraction, it takes away his or her ability to start over after falling down. What the victim can be left with is the emotion that drove the perpetrator in the first place: a feeling of having been cheated by life.