Earlier this year, TC Boyle published Tooth and Claw, his seventh fairly sizeable volume of short stories, most of which enjoy his characteristically sharp encounters and taut dialogue. Six months later, his next book lands on the mat: Talk Talk is his 11th novel, and follows hard on the heels of last year's massive but excellent saga of sex and academe, The Inner Circle. Not long before that was Drop City, a powerful, rangy clash between hippies and frontiersmen in Alaska. With an author so prolific, the question remains: is he consistently good?
Yes, is the emphatic answer. Talk Talk is a potent thriller fuelled by the crime of identity theft - not fraud, a few scammed cards here and there, but a full takeover of another's identity. William "Peck" Wilson, ambitious but struggling to control his temper, is bankrupted when his upstate New York Italian restaurants fold. He is jailed for a nasty assault on his ex-wife. Inside, he meets Sandman, an intelligent con who fuels Peck's sense of superiority to other criminals and explains how to elicit sensitive data to forge identity papers and so acquire others' credit cards and histories. Occasionally tweaking his "investments" via untraceable public library computers, Peck inhabits a luxurious West Coast lifestyle under the name of Dana Halter.
The real Dana Halter teaches at a deaf school. Pulled over for running a red light, she finds herself arrested for multiple frauds and bail jumping. The police show no interest in the supposedly "victimless" crime of identity theft and so she, with her dogged partner Bridger Martin, goes after her opaque persecutor.
Boyle is a little vague about the trickery of identity theft, which seems glibly simplistic, although only the fact of it rather than its mechanism is germane to his pursuit. Reminiscent of De Niro's cool audacity in the film Heat, Peck is fiery, urbane, and only slightly softened by his over-precise foodie predilections, listing rarified ingredients and menu plans. Even Sandman weighs in with a request for "some of that Viaggio Mocha" as though nodding to the coffee-obsessed weirdness of Lynch's Twin Peaks. Bridger is a puppy to Dana's steely determination. She thirsts to be revenged for "all the inadequacies she has been made to feel in her soundless life". Her dislocated communion with Bridger, parts vocal, sign and body language, is emotionally strained, the weight of the injustices against them near crushing.
Given the subject, Boyle does not linger over laborious reflections on the nature of identity. Marginal oppression has been his theme for a while. The wetbacks clustered round the Californian gated community in his 1995 novel, The Tortilla Curtain, foraged along social faultlines of hypocrisy and selfishness. Drop City revisited the immigrant clash in a different context; The Inner Circle pitted sexual liberationists against the hostile rump of conservative middle America. Boyle excels at exploring the peculiar vulnerabilities of the disenfranchised. Fired with adrenalin, Dana battles against the prejudices flung at her deafness and soured credit, giving Talk Talk a righteous zeal to spur on its pace.