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The battle between the sexes continues unabated in T. C. Boyle’s latest novel. Decked out as a thriller— complete with a heroine thirsting for justice, a wily villain scrambling to stay one step ahead, cross-country chases, and close escapes—it is also another T. C. Boyle story of relationships gone awry, of strong women and the slightly awestruck men who orbit them. (The eternal mystery of Woman has always fascinated Boyle; most of his novels exalt females as somehow more-than-human presences who dwell among lesser, mortal males.)

book cover

Talk Talk

by T. C. Boyle
Viking

The strong woman in question this time around is a deaf English teacher with a brittle personality, a chip on her shoulder, and a formidable will. Unlike most Boyle heroines, she’s not very likable, but she does elicit a certain grudging respect. (Her sidekick/boyfriend, an affable nonentity, serves mainly as a foil.) The real star is her nemesis, a slick crook building a career as an identity thief. By turns conciliatory and vengeful, doting and irresponsible, debonair and crude, he steals her identity and your sympathy; when their paths finally cross, you’re rooting for them both.

Compelling characters, a plot built for speed, a canvas that stretches coast to coast—all the ingredients for a gripping tale are here. Yet Boyle is his own worst enemy. The novel is really about communication, and how difficult it is. (The heroine is deaf, get it?) This theme—belabored yet undeveloped—smacks of the belief that all literary fiction must first instruct, then maybe entertain. Boyle’s fatal addiction to adjectival clauses and piled-on explanatory metaphors slows the story down even more. And under the made-for-TV script and lumbering prose lurks an essentially adolescent vision of male-female relations: women are enigmatic forces of nature that no man can hope to understand, let alone control. Still the bright young Turk, Boyle may have grown older, but he has yet to grow up.

Scott Prater is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.
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