“Lost Memory of Skin”
By Russell Banks
Ecco, 432 pages, $25.99
By Gina Webb
“They were pariahs of the most extreme sort, American untouchables, a caste of men ranked far below the merely alcoholic, addicted, or deranged homeless. They were men beyond redemption, care, or cure, both despicable and impossible to remove and thus by most people simply wished out of existence.”
Sex offenders. Not exactly our favorite substratum of American culture. But are we too quick to judge? Their lives and that of a college professor who studies them form the basis for a startling new novel by one of our greatest chroniclers of American life, Russell Banks.
In “Lost Memory of Skin, ” Banks (”Continental Drift, ” “Rule of the Bone, ” “Cloudsplitter, “) opens an investigation of sorts into a shantytown settlement under the fictional Archie B. Claybourne Causeway in Miami, where a colony of convicted sex offenders has been living peaceably for the past five years.
Via two characters — a young member of the colony who calls himself “The Kid, ” and a mysterious and compelling sociologist known only as “The Professor” — Banks explores the nature of the men who wear traceable electronic anklets, must stay 2,500 feet away from minors at all times, and whose names, crimes and other distinguishing characteristics are publicly and permanently on display at the Internet’s National Sex Offender Registry.
Once the neglected child of a single mother, the Kid more or less raised himself, existing on a steady diet of online pornography from an early age. It’s part of why he’s where he is today even though, as the book opens, the Kid is doing OK. He still has a job and even a pet: a 6-foot iguana named Iggy (Pop) that he’s cared for since birth.
For now, the Kid’s biggest problem is that he is in many respects still a kid, a virgin whose first date at 21 — set up online, with a girl posing as 18 — ended in an arrest. Until then, he lived with his mother, who has now disowned him; a short stint in the Army ended his equally brief opportunity to grow up.
After three months served and three off for good behavior, the Kid has hunkered down to deal with his new life under the Causeway, and his outlook is warily optimistic. Despite a lack of formal education, he is funny and likable, with the all-American inquisitiveness and survival streak of a contemporary Huck Finn.
All is well until an unexpected police raid on the settlement, in which the Kid loses Iggy, what little he owns, his job, and a place to live. Enter the Professor, a lumbering, obese teacher from the state college who appears so unexpectedly one night in the Kid’s tent, he thinks it might be God.
The Professor sets about interviewing the Kid for a study about the connections between homelessness and sex offenders that he hopes will one day help solve the combined problems as well as further his career; and in time, the Kid tells all, including the exact details of his Internet-based sex crime. When the events of the book continue to throw them together — the raid, a hurricane — the tables gradually turn, leaving the Kid to interview the Professor, whose past may be as complicated and more dangerous to both of them than the Kid’s own.
Initially, Banks appears to be, like the Professor, using the Causeway issues to examine the ghettoizing of sexual offenders after time served, with increasing pressure to administer ever more draconian punishment — as the Kid puts it, to treat offenders and even potential offenders “by means of chemical castration or better yet life sentences without parole or even better execution to be followed if possible by eternal damnation.”
But “Lost Memory of Skin” goes much further, morphing into that rare thing, a novel of ideas. As the Kid and the Professor travel through the novel together, their narratives gradually overlap and resonate, permeating, in a sense, each other’s skins. Along the way, they ponder everything from the history of early America and its first colonies to the dangerous new frontiers of the Internet, where the dividing lines between fantasy and reality have collapsed.
The novel includes descriptions of South Florida that range from gritty realism to breathtaking prose poetry. Vietnam vets hang out near the swamp, “their ancient tattoos too faded and wrinkled to decipher … their slack-skinned bodies tanned the color of old bricks.” The Kid watches burning red sunsets “streaked with tangerine strips of cloud” give way to a cityscape of “high-rises and skyscrapers downtown [where] fluorescent night-lights ignite floor after floor as the cleaners and the janitors and watchmen begin their night’s work and from the rooftops and penthouses slender beacons reach like long pale arms into the darkness.”
Perhaps the only thing in short supply in “Lost Memory of Skin” are enough answers to its many inquiries. But as a character called the Writer — who looks suspiciously like the author — says of the questions writers ask themselves, “When they can’t answer them they write about them … to give somebody else the chance to answer them.”
As the Kid might say, Thanks, Mr. Banks. Don’t mind if I do.