Lost Memory of Skin

By RUSSELL BANKS

In 2007, several sex offenders in Miami made national news when it came to light that they were living under a concrete causeway. They had taken up residence there because they had nowhere else to go. Miami, like several Florida cities, has some of the strictest sex offender laws in the nation. The men, convicted of sexually abusing children, were prohibited from living within 2,500 feet of anywhere kids congregate—a restriction that rules out most urban real estate. They couldn’t live in many neighborhoods even if the law would allow it. Sex offender registries that are searchable online have consigned them to what sociologists term “social death,” making it virtually impossible to secure a job, an apartment, or, God forbid, a date.

In Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks accomplishes what many a lesser novelist has merely attempted: He rips his story from the headlines. Using the rudiments of the case in Miami—where, incidentally, he lives when he’s not at his home in Upstate New York—he sets in motion a tale that reflects the moral complexity of a country that has decided that, for some, there are to be no second acts. In imagining the strait-jacketed life of a young man whose broad category of crime puts him on the wrong side of a black-and-white line, making him guilty “even of just being alive,” Banks creates a study in disconcerting grays.

Over the past thirty-five years, in some dozen novels and several short story collections, Banks has bored into the psyches of criminals, deadbeats, and sexually abused girls. He tackled the mind of bloodthirsty abolitionist John Brown in Cloudsplitter, the paranoid alcoholic Wade Whitehouse in Affliction, and the fourteen-year-old drug dealer Bone in Rule of the Bone. He’s a first-order observer of the fletching that guides human action.

In Lost Memory of Skin Banks takes aim at our received ideas about what’s normal and what’s just. The protagonist of his dark tale is a man in his early twenties known only as the Kid, on probation after committing a sex crime against an underage victim the nature of which remains unknown for much of the book. It is the human desire to know—a consuming and frankly prurient curiosity—that propels one through the story.

Relentlessly tracked by the GPS unit attached to his ankle and alienated from family and even from other sex offenders, all of whom regard each other with suspicion and, in some cases, disgust, the Kid forges a precarious existence as a busboy, a Dumpster diver, and the owner of woebegone pets. He gets by because he gives a wide berth to any situation that might get him into trouble. So he’s leery when a professor from a local university takes an interest in him. The man, who has his own urges—he’s enormously fat—and his own secrets, quickly becomes a resource as well as a confidant. His true motives remain uncertain, adding to the unease that permeates the story.

The Kid’s evolution into that species of human we call a sexual predator proceeded, almost until the moment of his crime, on the basis of material that, in moderate doses, composes the sexual diet of many young American males. Shame was his constant companion. “First it was from watching his mother making it with some guy and then it was from jerking off all the time since he was ten and then skin magazines and Internet porn and when he got older it was porn DVDs and shows at sex clubs and sex chat room conversations on the Internet with teenaged girls until finally he got caught in the act so to speak and busted by the cops and it’s all on YouTube for the whole world to watch and judge.”

Though the novel remains tightly focused on the Kid and his fate, this tale of human urges perverted also reads as a parable of modern urban life—something abnormal constructed on a natural foundation. The city in which the Kid lives is itself draped over a chain of manmade islands, the Calusa Great Barrier Isles, on which sprout “planted palms and built marinas, beachfront hotels, golf courses and high-rise apartment buildings with ocean views.” At one point, the Kid is prompted to wonder “if all across America there is some kind of strange invisible radioactive leakage like from high-tension wires or cell phones or road and mall parking lot asphalt that is turning thousands of American men young and old of all races into sex offenders…. He’s heard about Twinkies having chemicals that can change a normal person into a murderer. Maybe junk food like Big Macs and Whoppers can damage the immune system of certain susceptible men and convert them into sexual offenders.”

Yet for all this, Banks is no apologist. When he does finally reveal the details of the Kid’s crime, there’s been no grave misunderstanding that would allow us to endorse him as an innocent, only a series of circumstances that make his character sympathetic but a little distasteful. Without the question mark of the crime, however, the narrative tension of the book slackens. The professor’s own bizarre quandary takes over, and Banks—who’s never shied from supplying the inevitable rather than the comforting ending—leaves us a little in the dark.

Thought-provoking isn’t quite the same thing as satisfying, but the dilemma Lost Memory of Skin poses sticks with you. At one point, the Kid asks a minor character, a magazine writer, “Is this what writers do all the time, sit around asking themselves questions that can’t be answered?”

“Yeah. And when they can’t answer them they write them down.”

“Why?”

“To give somebody else a chance to answer them.”

“Does it work?”

“Sometimes.”

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