This is bleak stuff, with flashes of humor that land like sparks on dry grass, and also pretty fascinating. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, Banks may be the most compassionate fiction writer working today, and the Kid is only his most recent lens into the souls of seemingly decent men who do terribly indecent things out of ignorance, thirst and desperation in a deeply uncaring world. Balancing impressively on a moral tightrope, Banks never absolves the Kid of his actions even as he sympathizes with him.
The New York Times Book Review
…a major new work…destined to be a canonical novel of its time…it delivers another of Mr. Banks's wrenching, panoramic visions of American moral life…This book expresses the conviction that we live in perilous, creepy times. We toy recklessly with brand-new capacities for ruination. We bring the most human impulses to the least human means of expressing them, and we may not see the damage we do until it becomes irrevocable. Mr. Banks, whose great works resonate with such heart and soul, brings his full narrative powers to bear on illuminating this still largely unexplored new terrain.
The New York Times
…like so much else Banks has written, this novel is ambitious and often compellinga book that works with important ideas about the way we're reshaping our lives in the Internet age, while being reshaped ourselves, spiritually, sexually.
The Washington Post
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."
"To give somebody else a chance to answer them."
"Does it work?"
Sarah L. Courteau is the literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly. Reviewer: Sarah L. Courteau
For his latest novel, the acclaimed author of Cloudsplitter and The Sweet Hereafter again takes inspiration from a sanctuary of sorts. "The Kid," a young sex offender, lives with other registered offenders (including a disgraced state senator) in a makeshift camp beneath a Florida causeway based on a real colony that was shut down in 2010. After a police raid, the Kid meets "the Professor," a pompous, rotund man claiming to be researching homelessness. He wants to study—and cure—the Kid in order to prove his theories about society. But just as the study commences, the Professor, claiming that his life is in danger because of past work as a government spy, turns the tables, paying the Kid to interview him instead. Bloated and remarkably repetitive, this is more a collection of ideas and emblems than a novel. Though the Kid remains mostly opaque, he's a sympathetic character, but the nature of his crime, once revealed, lets Banks off the hook and simplifies rather than complicates matters. Banks continually refers to the Professor's weight and mental superiority, the latter a contrivance allowing for long rhetorical passages into the nature of man, sexual obsession, pornography, truth, and commerce that come as no surprise. Most frustrating is Banks's almost pathological restating of his characters' traits and motives, resulting in a highly frustrating novel in desperate need of an editor. (Sept.)
Booklist (starred review)
“Banks is in top form in his seventeenth work of fiction, a cyclonic novel of arresting observations, muscular beauty, and disquieting concerns… a commanding, intrepidly inquisitive, magnificently compassionate, and darkly funny novel of private and societal illusions, maladies, and truths.”
“Banks is a master of peeling back the veneer to show us for the desperate creatures we are, no more so than in his fearless Lost Memory of Skin…[Banks] writes here with a combination of compassion and outrage… a compelling read and an indictment of our age.”
Time Out New York
“[It] is a pleasure to see [Banks’] gift turned to big, semisurreal characters. The grand, rambling examination of guilt and blame takes place against a ravishingly bleak backdrop, lyrically described, while each revelation of character is like a quiet explosion.”
Associated Press Staff
“Lost Memory of Skin should be required reading for anyone interested in fixing the country’s broken criminal justice system…Banks, in his latest novel, takes an unflinching look at people at their worst and manages to turn it into art.”
Wall Street Journal
“His boldest imaginative leap yet into the invisible margins of society… Lost Memory of Skin is a haunting book.”
“Russell Banks really does know how to pull his readers into a dark, dark world only to deliver us into the light.”
“Banks reveals the two [characters] with tenderness and trenchant wit, in a story that, not surprisingly, plumbs the depth of human despair and resilience. If that prowess is predictable, Skin is bound to leave you shaken and strangely reassured.”
New York Times Book Review
“Banks may be the most compassionate fiction writer working today… Lost Memory of Skin is proof that Banks remains our premier chronicler of the doomed and forgotten American Male.”
“Mr. Banks knows plot, and incorporates intriguing complications to keep the novel building power all the way to the end.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Among contemporary writers giving voice to America’s beleaguered working class, Russell Banks may have no peer…this oddly unsettling, beautifully crafted novel…raise[s] fascinating issues.”
The New Yorker
“Banks’s enormous gamble in both plot and character pays off handsomely…By the end, Kafka is rubbing elbows with Robert Ludlum, and Banks has mounted a thrilling defense of the novel’s place in contemporary culture.”
“A ompelling story... one of those rare, strange, category-defying fictions that grabs hold of you... It’s hard to shake it off. And even when you do, it leaves a mark.”
"Banks is in top form in his seventeenth work of fiction, a cyclonic novel of arresting observations, muscular beauty, and disquieting concerns… a commanding, intrepidly inquisitive, magnificently compassionate, and darkly funny novel of private and societal illusions, maladies, and truths."
the Oprah Magazine O
“One of our finest novelists gives voice to the unspeakable…[A] compelling story”
“Like our living literary giants Toni Morrison and Thomas Pynchon, Russell Banks is a great writer wrestling with the hidden secrets and explosive realities of this country.”
“Russell Banks’s work presents without falsehood and with tough affection the uncompromising moral voice of our time... I trust his portraits of America more than any otherthe burden of it, the need for it, the hell of it.”
O: the Oprah Magazine
“One of our finest novelists gives voice to the unspeakable…[A] compelling story”
From his makeshift tent in the shantytown under the causeway, the Kid can see the sun rise over the city of Calusa and feel the Atlantic breeze riffling the royal palm fronds. But the dichotomy between paradise and the squalor of the encampment is not lost on him. The only area within the city limits that is more than 2500 feet from a school, park, or library, the causeway bridge shelters homeless sex offenders on probation with nowhere else to go. Living in anonymity, the damaged group runs the gamut from a politician with a penchant for little girls to this lonely, asocial boy, whose only sexual relationship took place in an Internet chat room. When the Professor arrives to interview the Kid for a sociological study, the Kid wants to trust the man, and we hope he'll be saved through human interaction. But the Professor has his own demons. VERDICT Multiaward winner Banks (Affliction) has written a disturbing contemporary novel that feels biblical in its examination of good and evil, penance and salvation, while issuing a cri de coeur for penal reform. The graphic language may be off-putting for some but necessarily advances the theme of illusion vs. reality in the digital world. [See Prepub Alert, 4/18/11.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Myers, FL
Banks (The Reserve,2008, etc.) once again explores the plight of the dispossessed, taking a big risk this time by making his protagonist a convicted sex offender.
He hedges his bets slightly: The Kid is a 22-year-old who got jailed for showing up at a 14-year-old girl's house with condoms, K-Y jelly, porn and beer after some sexy Internet chat. But Banks makes it clear that there are plenty of actual child molesters and "baby bangers" camped out with the Kid under a Florida causeway—because they're prohibited from living 2,500 feet from any place children under 18 congregate, which is pretty much everywhere. It's less clear whether the author agrees with the Professor, a sociologist specializing in the causes of homelessness, that pedophilia is a response to feelings of powerlessness and a disease of the modern media world that sexualizes children in advertising. Ambiguity rules in Banks' knotty narrative of the Kid's odyssey after police break up the encampment under the causeway (it's an election year) and he loses his job as a busboy. Was the Professor really a government informer back in the 1960s? Are his former bosses trying to kill him, as he claims? Maybe, but it's hard to tell. And Banks doesn't make it easy to like the Kid, addicted to porn since he started watching it on the Internet at age 10 to blot out the sounds of his mother having sex with her various boyfriends, so isolated by his own wounds that other people don't seem very real to him. Though there's plenty of plot, including a hurricane and a dead body fished out of a canal, the slow growth of the Kid's self-knowledge and his empathy for others is the real story, offering the only ray of hope in an otherwise bleak consideration of a broken society and the damaged people it breeds.
Intelligent, passionate and powerful, but very stark indeed.
Read an Excerpt
It isn’t like the Kid is locally famous for doing a good or a bad thing and even if people knew his real name it wouldn’t change how they treat him unless they looked it up online which is not something he wants to encourage. He himself like most of the men living under the Causeway is legally prohibited from going online but nonetheless one afternoon biking back from work at the Mirador he strolls into the branch library down on Regis Road like he has every legal right to be there.
The Kid isn’t sure how to get this done. He’s never been inside a library before. The librarian is a fizzy lady—ginger-colored hair glowing around her head like a bug light, pink lipstick, freckles— wearing a floral print blouse and khaki slacks. She’s a few inches taller than the Kid, a small person above the waist but wide in the hips like she’d be hard to tip over. The sign on the counter in front of her says Reference Librarian, Gloria . . . something—the Kid is too nervous to register her last name. She smiles without showing her teeth and asks if she can help him.
Yeah. I mean, I guess so. I dunno, actually.
What are you looking for?
You’re like the reference lady, right?
Right. Do you need to look up something in particular?
The air-conditioning is cranked and the place feels about ten degrees cooler now than it did when the Kid came through the door and he suddenly realizes he’s shivering. But the Kid’s not cold, he’s scared. He’s pretty sure he shouldn’t be inside a public library even though he can’t remember there being any rules specifically against entering one as long as he’s not loitering and it’s not a school library and there’s no playground or school nearby. At least none that he’s aware of. You can never be sure though. Playgrounds and schools are pretty much lurking everywhere. And children and teenagers probably come in here all the time this late in the day to pretend they’re doing homework or just to hang out.
He looks around the large fluorescent-lit room, scans the long rows of floor-to-ceiling book-lined shelves—it’s like a huge supermarket with nothing on the shelves but books. It smells like paper and glue, a little moldy and damp. Except for a geeky-looking black guy with glasses and a huge Adam’s apple and big wind-catching ears sitting at a table with half-a-dozen thick books and no pictures opened in front of him like he’s trying to look up his ancestors there’s no other customers in the library.
A customer—that’s what he is. He’s not here to ask this lady for a job or looking to rent an apartment from her and he’s not panhandling her and he’s for sure not going to hit on her—she’s way too old, probably forty or fifty at least and pretty low on the hotness scale. No, the Kid’s a legitimate legal customer who’s strolled into the library to get some information because libraries are where the information is.
So why is he shaking and his arms all covered with goose bumps like he’s standing naked inside a meat locker? It’s not just because he’s never actually been inside a library before even when he was in high school and it was sort of required. He’s shivering because he’s afraid of the answer to the question that drove him here even though he already knows it.
Listen, can I ask you something? It’s kinda personal, I guess.
Well, see, I live out in the north end and the people in my neighborhood, my neighbors, they’re all like telling me that there might be like a convicted sex offender living there. In the neighborhood. And they tell me that you can just go online to this site that tells you where he’s living and all and they asked me if I’d check it out for them. For the neighborhood. Is it true? Is what true? You know, that you can just like go online and it’ll tell you where the sex offender lives even if you don’t know his name or anything.
Well, let’s go see, she says like he asked her what’s the capital of Vermont and leads the Kid across the room to a long table where six computers are lined up side by side and no one is using them. She sits down in front of one and does a quick Google search under convicted sex offenders and up pops the National Sex Offender Registry which links straight to familywatchdog.us. The Kid stands at a forward tilt behind her shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He thinks he should run now, get out of here fast before she clicks again but something he can’t resist, something he knows is coming that is both scary and familiar keeps him staring over the librarian’s shoulder at the screen the same way he used to get held to the screen when cruising pornography sites. The librarian clicks find offenders and then on the new menu hits by location and another menu jumps up and asks for the address.
You’re from Calusa, right? What’s your neighborhood’s zip code?
It’s . . . ah . . . 33135.
Any particular street you want to look up?
He gives her the name of the street where his mother lives and he used to live and she types it in and hits search. A pale green map of his street and the surrounding twenty or so blocks appears on the screen. Small red, green, and orange squares are scattered across the neighborhood like bits of confetti.
Any particular block?
The Kid reaches down to the screen and touches the map on the block where he lived his entire life until he enlisted in the army and where he lived again after he was discharged. A red piece of confetti covers his mother’s bungalow and the backyard where he pitched his tent and built Iggy the iguana’s outdoor cage.
The librarian clicks onto the tiny square and suddenly the Kid is looking at his mug shot—his forlorn bewildered face—and he feels all over again the shame and humiliation of the night he was booked. There’s his full name, first, last, and middle, date of birth, height, weight, his race, color of his eyes and hair, and the details of his crime and conviction.
Slowly the librarian turns in her chair and looks up at the Kid’s real face, then back at the computerized version.
That’s . . . you. Isn’t it?
I gotta go, he whispers. I gotta leave. He backs away from the woman who appears both stunned and saddened but not at all afraid which surprises him and for a few seconds he considers trying to explain how his face and his description and criminal record got there on the computer screen. But there’s no way he can explain it to someone like her, a normal person, a lady reference librarian who helps people look up the whereabouts and crimes of people like him.
Wait. Don’t leave.
I gotta go. I’m sorry. No kidding, I’m really sorry.
Don’t be sorry.
No, I’m prob’ly not even supposed to be here, he says. In the library, I mean. He turns and walks stiff-legged away and then as he nears the door he breaks into a run and the Kid doesn’t stop running until he’s back up on his bike heading for the Causeway.
From the Hardcover edition.