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Monday, December 12, 2011

Lost Memory of Skin

With Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks has accomplished something I would not have believed possible.  Not only has he used a convicted sex offender as the lead character of his new novel, he has managed to make the young man both likable and someone readers can respect and root for as the novel progresses.

This twenty-something, young sex offender, known only as “The Kid,” finds himself living under a Miami Beach bridge as the novel opens.  Like all the rest who share this horrible living space with him, the Kid is caught up in an irony of his conviction.  His probation terms require that he not leave the county, but he is not allowed to live anywhere within 2500 feet of where children are likely to congregate.  Living under the causeway is the only way he and his fellow offenders can meet this term of their probations.

For all his lack of experience, the Kid is a complex character.  He knows nothing about his father except for the man’s name, and he was raised by one of the most indifferent mothers imaginable.  The Kid, in fact, can be said to have raised himself.  His addiction to Internet porn, an addiction he acquired as a young boy, was probably the defining event of his life.  That his mother only got upset about her son’s addiction to pornography because he maxed out her credit card, is indicative of the moral guidance he received at home.

When “The Professor,” a hugely obese college professor from a local school, appears on the scene, the Kid’s life begins to change.  Suddenly, someone wants to hear what the Kid has to say about his situation and wants to organize things under the causeway in a way that will make life a little easier for those who live there.  At first suspicious of the Professor’s motives (even to suspecting the Professor of wanting to molest him), the Kid gradually comes to trust the man.  When the Professor is revealed to have problems and peculiarities of his own, things will take an even darker, unexpected twist but the Kid, true to his own moral code, will somehow manage to persevere. 

Russell Banks (right)
Lost Memory of Skin does not overtly argue that the rest of us should try harder to “understand” what drives sex offenders to commit the horrible crimes they commit.    Banks is much subtler than that.  His message is more about the “big net” approach to punishment that treats all degrees of sex crime as being pretty much the same.  Readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not Banks’s argument is a sound one.

It was only after I heard Banks speak about Lost Memory of Skin at the 2011 Texas Book Festival that I became curious enough to want to read it.  Frankly, prior to that event, the idea of reading a rather long novel about convicted sex offenders was not an appealing one.  Thankfully, my curiosity won out over my natural aversion to the topic, and I did not miss out on one of the year’s best novels.  It was a close call.

Rated at: 5.0
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