LOST MEMORY OF SKIN by Russell Banks

Book Quote:

“The Kid reminds the Professor of Huckleberry Finn somehow. Here he is now, long after he lit out for the Territory, grown older and as deep into the Territory as you can go…and there’s no farther place he can run to. The Professor wants to know what happened to the ignorant, abused, honest American boy between the end of the book and now…[H]ow did he come years later to having ‘no money, no job, no legal squat’? In twenty-first-century America.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (SEP 27, 2011)

The main character of Banks’ new novel, a twenty-two-year-old registered sex offender in South Florida known only as “the Kid,” may initially repel readers. The Kid is recently out of jail and on ten-year probation in fictional Calusa County, and is required to wear a GPS after soliciting sex from an underage girl. Ironically, he is still a virgin.

The Kid cannot leave the county, but he also cannot reside within 2,500 feet from any place children would congregate. That leaves three options—the swamplands, the airport area, or the Causeway. He chooses the Causeway and meets other sex offenders, a seriously motley crew, who consciously isolate from each other as a group. He befriends one old man, the Rabbit, but sticks to his tent, his bicycle, and his alligator-size pet iguana, Iggy. Later, he procures a Bible.

These disenfranchised convicts are enough to make readers squirm. Moreover, in the back of the reader’s mind is the question of whether authorial intrusion will be employed in an attempt to manipulate the reader into sympathizing with these outcasts. It takes a master storyteller, one who can circumnavigate the ick factor, or, rather, subsume it into a morally complex and irresistible reading experience, to lure the wary, veteran reader.

Banks’ artful narrative eases us in slowly and deftly breaks down resistance, piercing the wall of repugnance. It infiltrates bias, reinforced by social bias, and allows you to eclipse antipathy and enter the sphere of the damned. A willing reader ultimately discovers a captivating story, and reaches a crest of understanding for one young man without needing to accept him.

An illegal police raid on the Causeway, provoked by hatred and politics, disrupts the Kid’s relatively peaceful life early on, and now he has nowhere to turn. Subsequently, a hurricane wipes out the makeshift homes of the inhabitants. The kid becomes a migrant, shuffling within the legal radius of permitted locales. At about this time, he meets the Professor, who the Kid calls “Haystack,” an obese sociologist at the local university who is the size and intellect of a mountain, an enigmatic man with a past of shady government work and espionage. He is conducting a study of homelessness and particularly the homeless, convicted sex offender population.

The Professor offers the Kid financial and practical assistance in exchange for a series of taped interviews. He aims to help the Kid gain control and understanding over his life, to empower him to move beyond his pedophilia. They form a partnership of sorts, but the Kid remains leery of the Professor and his agenda. The Professor’s opaque past, his admitted secrets and lies, marks him as an unreliable narrator. Or does it? Later, perilous developments radically alter their relationship, a fitting move on the author’s part that provides sharp contrasts and deeper characterization.

Sex offenders are the criminal group most collectivized into one category of “monsters.” Banks takes a monster and probes below the surface of reflexive response. There is no attempt to defend the Kid’s crime or apologize for it. We see a lot of the events through his eyes, and decide whether he is reliable or not. He acquires an undernourished, skulking yellow dog and a crusty old grey parrot with clipped wings and a salty tongue. His relationship with these animals is rendered without a lick of sentimentality, but it bestows the most resonant and powerful feelings in the reader compared to anywhere else in the book. The care and feeding of dependents bring out the Kid’s protective instincts and help keep him focused.

The book is divided into five parts. Along the way, Banks dips into rhetorical digressions on sex, pornography, geography, and human nature, slowing down the momentum and disengaging the tension. These intervals are formal and stiff, although they are eventually braided into the story at large. However, despite these static flourishes, the story progresses with confidence and strength.

Most characters, whether stand-up citizens or sex offenders, have a moniker, which deliberately mechanizes them, but between the author and reader, humanization occurs between the pages. There’s Shyster, the pedophilic, disbarred lawyer and ex-Senator; Otis, the Rabbit, an elderly, disabled member of the tribe; and a Hemingway-esque character, the Writer, who incidentally resembles Banks himself; and others who personify their names.

Overall, the languid pace of the novel requires steadfast patience, but commitment to it has a fine payoff. Readers are rewarded with a thrilling denouement and a pensive but provocative ending. It inspires contemplation and dynamic discussion, and makes you think utterly outside the box.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 112 readers
PUBLISHER: Ecco (September 27, 2011)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Russell Banks
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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September 27, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Drift-of-Life, Florida

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