Viking, hardcover, $25.95
Tom and Huck were small-time dreamers compared to 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. A literary tale paced like a thriller, it conjures a deaf high school teacher named Dana Halter who discovers there is another Dana Halter out there. Only this one is a man, and he's 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.
Americans have become familiar with untangling comparable messes. Boyle aptly captures the kind of rage this inspires. 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., 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: "This was how life should be, 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."
In the end, Talk Talk reveals one of identity theft's most basic irritations: It steals the victim's claim on hard-won happiness. Infraction by infraction, it takes away the 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.
A Scanner Darkly
A graphic novel based on the novel by Philip K. Dick
Pantheon, hardcover, $23.95
No one understands paranoia quite as well as the late science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, which is why so many of his novels have been made into films. The latest to hit the screens is A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater's animated version of Dick's 1977 classic, starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr. and Woody Harrelson. This handy little book is a graphic novelization of the film, but it feels more like Linklater's book than Dick's.
In the original story, a law enforcement officer named Fred is assigned to track a dealer of the highly addictive Substance D. To pull this off, he takes on the identity of that dealer—only the drug, which he has to take, pits the two hemispheres of his brain against each other, so the boundary between Fred and his assumed identity get blurred. The feeling of watching and being watched lends the book a jumpy, agitated feel.
In the film, Linklater makes the most of this theme of doubling, turning it into an interesting commentary on the state that narcotics plunge users into, with an aftertaste of Orwellian political paranoia. As a graphic novel, that skin-itchy feeling is diluted. With frames jumping from one image to the next, and the text highlighting the dopey philosophical goulash that stands in for dialog in Linklater's films, it's more likely the reader's eye will snag on the images, which are pretty and spooky, but somehow not enough.
Let It Be Morning
Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger
Black Cat, paper, $13
An Israeli Arab learns the bitter wisdom of Thomas Wolfe's old adage “you can't go home again” in Sayed Kashua's nervy second novel, Let It Be Morning. As the tale begins, our unnamed narrator leaves his job at a Tel Aviv newspaper and returns to his ancestral village, only to discover a broken society.
In the 10 years since the narrator last visited, veils have become popular, readings of the Koran have proliferated on TV and religious weddings have eclipsed the bacchanalian ones. Cut off from their Jewish neighbors, the Arabs in his home village nurse grudges and respond to the heavy hand of Israeli checkpoint operators with increasing resignation.
Shortly after the novel begins, Israeli tanks arrive without explanation and surround the town. As the siege stretches from hours into days, villagers trade stories, each one worse than the one before. Soon enough, actual atrocities—contractors attempting to leave for work in a pickup are shot and killed—give way to paranoid conspiracies. The United States and Israel are about to drop a nuclear bomb on Iran, say the young men. Iraq is using its weapons of mass destruction, say others.
Let It Be Morning shows how this situation is manipulated and spun from both sides. Moreover, it shows how a population reacts when it's slowly strangled. First they have questions: When will the barricade lift? What is it for? Then they get angry. Ultimately, they adapt. It's what they have always done. But as this novel makes clear, it cannot always be so.
The End of California
Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, $23.95
In his first book, a story collection called Family Men, Steve Yarbrough introduced Indianola, Miss., the kind of town where men worry that their wives are having affairs with country music singers, and football scholarships mean a lot. In the five works of fiction he has published since, Yarbrough has drawn this town from all different perspectives—sometimes sending his characters as far away as Europe so that they can look back on it.
Yarbrough’s latest novel may be called The End of California, but it too takes place in the Mississippi Delta. The main character left the Deep South to play college football. Two decades later, now a doctor, he comes back to Mississippi in disgrace and finds his hometown just as claustrophobic and full of drunks and nosy neighbors as when he left it. Even if this doesn’t sound like home to you, Yarbrough makes it fun to visit for a while.