Name game

T.C. Boyle on America’s identity crisis
By PETER KEOUGH  |  July 11, 2006

SHALLOW FURY: An engaging novel about identity theft that doesn’t quite pay off.
What’s in a name? For the identity thief, a fortune; for the victim, a world of woe. At the start of T.C Boyle’s new novel, Dana Halter frets about getting to a dental appointment in time. She runs a stop sign, and all that worry dissipates as she’s arrested for multiple crimes ranging from assault with a deadly weapon to bounced checks. She spends the weekend wearing an orange jump suit in a fetid cell, accosted by winos, hookers, and crazy people. But who’s crazier than the people who’ve put her away? When she arrives in court days later, the truth that should have been obvious to all the stereotypically indifferent and incompetent officials she’s encountered comes out: Dana’s identity has been stolen.

What can be more fundamentally American than anxiety about one’s identity? In literature, the theme goes back at least to Edgar Allan Poe. No accident, then, that Boyle names his villain William Wilson, after the wastrel Poe character hounded to death by his doppelgänger. But he also makes Dana deaf, investing her Miranda “right to remain silent” with keen irony. Not only has she lost her identity, she can barely speak. Her voice wavers and quails under stress, and when she signs, she’s at the mercy of interpreters. A life of silent desperation? Hardly. Her isolation only intensifies her anger and determination, as Boyle writes in a prolix description of wordlessness: “She heard nothing. She lived in a world apart, her own world, a better world, and silence was her refuge and her hard immutable shell and she spoke to herself from deep in the unyielding core of it. . . . That they couldn’t touch. No one could.”

Dana engages in the blame game, directing her fury first at the arresting police officer, then at the inept court-appointed translator, then at the judge. Her wimpy boyfriend, the aptly named Bridger, is next in line, until Dana realizes she should be focusing on the thief. He’s a formidable opponent, the most charismatic creep Boyle has created in some time, and he threatens to become Talk Talk’s most appealing character. A lower-class loser with dreams of material success, a crass bastard with a flair for finer things and a passion for cooking, Wilson is a self-made man and then some. He’s mastered the art of inhabiting and discarding the identities of strangers. As Dana, he’s enjoyed showing off her PhD as much as he has maxing out the credit cards he’s taken out in her name. And his rage, sense of victimization, and illusions of entitlement mirror Dana’s own.

So the chase is on, with successive chapters alternating points of view from Dana and Wilson and, somewhat irrelevantly, Bridger. Meandering from California to upstate New York, the narrative serves up fast food, coincidences, surreal confrontations, and Boyle’s arch detailing of highway Americana. He shapes his paranoia du jour into an exciting amateur-detective story. What’s missing is the profound payoff. Boyle’s resolution of the basic questions about the American experience turns out to be just more talk talk.

T.C. BOYLE | July 11, 6 pm | Boston Public Library’s Abbey Room, 700 Boylston St, Boston | 617.536.5400 x 2212

Related: They're watching you, Bob's your uncle, Off point, More more >
  Topics: Books , Boston Public Library, Crime, Edgar Allan Poe,  More more >
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