If you are one of the 26.5 million veterans whose personal information was on that stolen laptop, stop reading right now. And under no circumstances should you buy Talk Talk, the latest novel by T.C. Boyle.
The rest of us, though, will certainly enjoy the PEN-Faulkner Award-winner's satirically clever take on that most modern of crimes, identity theft. (Although be warned: Side effects include a creeping feeling of paranoia and an overwhelming urge to purchase a shredder.)
Dana Halter, an English teacher at a school for the deaf, is running late for a root canal one morning when she runs a stop sign in front of a police officer. Instead of writing her a ticket, he pulls his gun and handcuffs her.
After a weekend at the county jail that made the root canal look like a Fijian holiday, Dana is hauled up on warrants that include passing bad checks, car theft, and assault with a deadly weapon.
Then the judge gets a look at the description of the perpetrator, a "white male." Dana receives an "Oops, sorry" from the state of California and a bill for $487.50 to get her car out of the impound lot.
When she asks when the police are going to track down the real criminal, her victims' assistance counselor just chuckles at her naiveté. The police simply don't have the resources to devote to a "victimless crime" like identity theft, she explains over tea and candy, gently adding that Dana's credit is ruined, and – if she doesn't get her problem resolved – she may find herself foraging for food out of dumpsters like the disabled Korean War veteran who lost everything (including his frequent flier miles) to identity thieves.
Instead of calling the credit bureaus – or selling her experience to Citibank for one of their commercials where a sweet, gray-haired lady cleans her pool, lip-synching while a middle-aged redneck voice gloats about the monster truck he bought on her credit – Dana goes ballistic.
She vows to track down the creep who's stolen her life, and she and her boyfriend, Bridger, take off to exact revenge – never mind that Bridger's supposed to be working overtime to complete the special effects on a blockbuster science fiction movie and that Dana's just been fired for missing work.
Meanwhile, the "other" Dana, whose name is really William "Peck" Wilson, is furious that one of his marks is daring to threaten his comfortable existence in Marin County (complete with oceanfront condo and gourmet cuisine) and so he sets about plotting a strike of his own.
Boyle switches perspective between Dana, Bridger, and Peck, as the three head off on a cross-country chase that culminates in Peck's old hometown in New York. Along the way, relationships fray, and Peck details just how easy it is to steal someone else's life and, in a warped version of the American dream of reinventing oneself over and over again.
If the details are so fungible, then what, exactly, makes up the essential person? Dana's deafness, for example, plays a large role in how she has defined herself. Peck, meanwhile, slowly peels back the layers of his borrowed lives to reveal a man fueled almost entirely by rage.
Boyle ("Drop City") is at his sharpest in the earliest pages, when building Dana's plight and introducing her nemesis. (By the fourth chapter, I was vowing to obliterate even the most innocuous shopping list and fantasizing about a personal home incinerator, like the one Edna Mode had in "The Incredibles.")
But even though Boyle compares her to Captain Ahab, Dana just doesn't have enough obsessive energy to fire the later chapters, and the plot slows considerably by the time she, Bridger, and Peck make it to the East Coast. There it stalls out completely, leaving the reader with an ending that's abrupt and unsatisfying.
Also along for the ride are Peck's Russian girlfriend, Nathalie, and her daughter, Madison. But neither the woman nor the girl is given a full-fledged identity of her own. Nathalie loves spas, glitzy jewelry, and shopping. Madison, a spoiled 5-year-old, loves sugar and TV. (Fans of Boyle's earlier work may suffer a pang of concern that a wild animal is going to swoop down on the little girl and devour her somewhere in the Rockies, but he thankfully has left the child-chomping motif out of this particular novel, along with most other excesses.)
The fact that Dana and Bridger actually call Peck – rather than the police – and let him know that they're on to him makes no rational sense. But Boyle offers so many genuinely witty observations that readers are likely to forgive a plotting misstep. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy that shredder.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.