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Turning the tables

Talk Talk A Novel T. Coraghessan Boyle Viking: 340 pp., $25.95

July 09, 2006|Jerry Stahl | Jerry Stahl is the author of several books, including "Permanent Midnight: A Memoir" and the novel "I, Fatty," which has been optioned by Johnny Depp.

EX-CONS! Smackdowns! Pouting hotties with checkered pasts!

The cheesy beauty of genre fiction -- in this instance, the thriller -- is that we know the ingredients ahead of time. From franchisers like James Patterson on up the ladder to full-on masters like Michael Connelly, the most reliable delights on the menu are the narrative drive and the cultivated mayhem that we trust, in our Hollywood-trained hearts, will all work out in the end. No matter how much gore and grit, there's a white knight in there somewhere, even if he's deeply flawed, semi-alcoholic and prone to let his knuckles do the talking. Are we not men? The bad guys will get what's coming to them. And those on the side of right will emerge triumphant.

Or not. When, as in the case of T. Unpronounceable Boyle's latest, "Talk Talk," a bona fide literary genius hops on the genre pony, it becomes less a vehicle for straight-up suspense than a Trojan horse. Along with the requisite thrills, the author smuggles in all manner of verbal fireworks and observational wizardry before ultimately and methodically subverting every trope of the genre. (About which, more later.) "Talk Talk's" setup itself evokes a novelistic three-way with Franz Kafka, Carson McCullers and Jim Thompson.

Check it out: a language-loving deaf teacher (the irony!) named Dana is jailed for crimes she couldn't possibly have committed. A sympathetic judge realizes her plight and dismisses the charges against her, but by then the damage has been done. Job gone, life shattered, she and her movie-geek boyfriend, Bridger, smoke out the high-living sociopath who's assumed her identity and trail him cross-country, from small-town California to upstate New York, two of Boyle's fave literary haunts. In the end, as they say in book jacket-ese, victim and victimizer come face to face in a final, life-altering confrontation.

That's a blockbuster-friendly plot -- were it not for the author's aforementioned penchant for subversion. For starters, Boyle breaks the cardinal rule of corporate entertainment: None of his characters is particularly likable. Dana, brilliant and determined, is also self-righteous and slightly humorless. Bridger, a film school grad whose dreams of George Lucas-dom have been reduced to a mind-numbing computer gig at a special-effects house, packs all the appeal of a guy who'll grow old in his "Star Trek" T-shirt. This snippet, in which Girlfriend tries to appreciate Boyfriend's attempt to cheer her up on the eve of some hard orthodontic work, pretty much captures their dynamic -- and that of the novel itself:

"The night before, just to reassure her, he'd told her that the last time he'd been to the dentist he'd named names and given up all his secrets in the first three minutes and still the fiend kept drilling. She'd signed back to him, right hand open, palm in, fingers pointing up, then the fingertips to the mouth and the hand moving out and down, ending with the palm up: Thank you. And then aloud: 'For sharing that.' "

Not exactly the stuff of wit -- but that's the point. Boyle's abilities as comic fictioneer were on parade as far back as his "Descent of Man" days, nearly 30 years ago. So we're talking about a creative choice -- not a limitation. By now he possesses the unparalleled ability to create characters who can do far more than amuse. In fact, they're so absolutely human that they're annoying -- in the way that humans are. While annihilating his novel's status as escapist fiction (a status, one suspects, that the author craves as much as he would a blurb from thriller queen Mary Higgins Clark), this points to the higher bar Boyle raises in his work. He's sweating not to make us sympathize with his creatures but to make us comprehend them. He lavishes his prodigious -- and prodigiously humane -- gifts on how they are, not who they are.

Consider: The intricacies of nonaudible communication, the way it feels to operate in the world, cut off from its cacophony and, most astonishing, the silent wonders such different-sensed individuals savor that the rest of us can never experience -- all of this is chronicled with such soulful, meticulous accuracy that "chronicled" isn't even the best word. It's more accurate to say that Boyle, through sheer empathic power, seems to have wormholed into this parallel universe of the deaf.

Here's Dana conveying how much it means to her when her lover, however clumsily, speaks to her in sign: "He tried for her sake, and it was more intimate, more giving, even than what they did in bed together; in that moment, she felt herself go out to him as if all her tethers had been cut." It's as though Boyle captures the sensation and dissects it for an audience burdened with all five senses.

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