Chris Crutcher titled (actually, it may very well have been his publisher who chose the title, but we'll never know) his young adult novel Whale Talk because the theme of water is prevalent throughout the novel and because the characteristics of whales—with respect to community and communication with each other—serves as a contrast for the dysfunctional environment in which the story's protagonist, Tao Jones, or T.J., tries to function. T.J.'s school is the epitome of high schools everywhere, with their cliques and conflicts, including bullying of the weak or different by the physically stronger, who cannot understand, let alone tolerate, eccentrics and nonconformists like the swim team T.J. is meticulously assembling with the goal of earning Letterman jackets.
So, T.J. has chosen to put together a competitive swim team as a way of subverting the established order of the institution of learning he attends. He is a swimmer ("When I was thirteen, I qualified for the Junior Olympics in two swimming events"), and swimming and water constitute two of the overriding themes of Crutcher's novel. Even the matter of procreation draws on the theme of swimming, as when T.J., the story's narrator, describes the events surrounding his conception by his biological parents:
"Evidently Glenda was as surprised as Stephan; she’d had a one-night stand with my sperm donor to get even for a good thumping and had no idea the tall black-Japanese poet’s squiggly swimmer was the one in a billion to crash through to the promised land."
Specific to the role of whales in Crutcher's novel, T.J. repeatedly notes his adoptive father's fascination with these large marine mammals. The adoptive father likes to spend his time watching television documentaries and sports-talk shows. Among his favorite documentaries are those about whales, the characteristics of which—especially with regard to they way these massive yet graceful creatures interact with each other and communicate—he finds particularly appealing. At one point in Whale Talk, T.J. describes entering his parents' bedroom only to discover his father sitting in the dark watching yet another show displaying humpback whales "emitting faint whale songs"—in effect, communicating with each other.
T.J.'s adoptive father's fascination with whales is finally discussed at some length in Chapter 10 of Crutcher's novel. When T.J. asks his father why the whale tape was playing, the older man's response references the tragedy from his past that has darkened his outlook on life, a tragedy that involved the accidental killing of a child with his delivery truck:
“I was in one of those emotional places where I cursed my entire being. Mad at myself for not looking under the truck, mad at my parents and relatives and teachers for not warning me this kind of pain even exists in the world, mad at God for not looking under his truck and seeing me there.
“And I realized I had reached adulthood without even knowing what it is to be human. Nobody ever told me how dangerous it is, how risky. I started wishing I were a whale. At least they know what it is to be a whale. I mean, think of it. I walk outside and scream at the top of my lungs, and it travels maybe two blocks. A whale unleashes his cry, and it travels hundreds or even thousands of miles. Every whale in the ocean will at one time or another run into that song. And I figure whales probably don’t edit. If they think it, they say it. If some man-whale cheats on his wife, her anguish, her rage, her despair, is heard and understood by every whale who swims into the range of her voice. The joy of lovemaking, the crippling heartache of a lost child—it’s all heard and understood. Predators and prey have equal voice. . . Whale talk is the truth, and in a very short period of time, if you’re a whale, you know exactly what it is to be you.”
T.J.'s adoptive father has lived much of his life with the emotional pain that comes from accidentally killing an innocent human being and, even worse, a child who had yet to grow into the person he or she would have become. He has, in a manner of speaking, experienced an existential crisis, unsure of his place in the world. He loves watching and reading about whales because whales are social animals that live in pods, or small communities, and do not experience the existential uncertainty common to many humans.
When the theme of whales, with respect to the adoptive father's identification with—or, more accurately, envy of them—is viewed alongside T.J.'s swimming history and his efforts at assembling a swim team out of the misfits and outcasts around him, the reason the novel was titled Whale Talk becomes clearer. T.J. is at home in the water; his father immerses himself in the watery world of whales, who possess an ability to communicate and interact that transcends that of humans, and T.J. must invariably come to the aid of those intimidated or bullied by the more predatory among the humans who inhabit his world. If the manner in which marine mammals communicate and interact is superior to that of humans, then why not make the way whales communicate and live central to the overall plot of Whale Talk? And, if that's the case, why not simply title the story Whale Talk?
T.J.'s father believes that whales have a superior form of communication, and subsequently a richer more honest life than humans.
The book is called "Whale Talk," because T.J.'s father mentions that he wishes that he was a whale, because whales communicate with one another in a very straightforward manner.
"One day, T. J. finds his father, depressed and alone in his room listening to a tape of whales talking to one another. His father explains that whales send messages which are not edited; whales do not attempt to protect other whales from the realities of life;"
"Whale Talk is transmitted as it is felt to all whales for miles around. T. J.'s father explains that, consequently, whales know what it means to be a whale, unlike many humans who never discover what it is to be human."