You Know You Can’t Go Back

Banks lostRussell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a very, very good book that’s very, very hard to like.  Actually, I take that back.  It’s easy to like if you’re a reader who accepts that protagonists can be flawed, possibly beyond redemption.  If you’re a fan of Banks, you know to expect this.  This is, after all, the same guy who’s made a career of trafficking in problematic characters – from militant abolitionist John Brown (Cloudsplitter) to an opportunistic lawyer and incestuous father (The Sweet Hereafter) to a perpetually angry drunk (Affliction).  So when it becomes clear that the main character in Lost Memory of Skin is a convicted sex offender, your attitude will largely depend on how familiar you are with Banks’ work.  And even if you’re very familiar, like I am, it’s still going to be one of the most uncomfortable reading experiences you’re likely to have.

The Kid is the book’s anchor, the sex offender we meet in the opening chapter, newly released from prison and nervously going to the public library (a forbidden location) to access the Internet (a forbidden activity) to verify for himself his presence on the National Sex Offender Registry.  He’s scared away when his photo pops up on the screen and the librarian recognizes him, and he flees to the Causeway, an area beneath an overpass where local sex offenders have pitched tents and built shanties because it’s one of only three places in the county where they won’t be within 2,500 feet of children.  One afternoon he meets the Professor, a morbidly obese academic from the local university who wants to interview the Kid for a research project.  It’s the Professor’s hypothesis that sex offenders have only been led to offend because they don’t feel in control of any other aspect of their lives, and they can therefore be redeemed by having some measure of control and success – jobs and responsibilities – that give them the confidence they need to no longer assert their control by preying on the young.  Lost Memory of Skin is primarily about the relationship that develops between the Kid and the Professor – friends would be overstating things – and how what begins as a simple interview project develops into a weirdly symbiotic partnership.

The question throughout the book – the problem that the whole thing hinges on – is if the Kid is beyond redemption.  Banks wisely withholds the nature of his crime for a while, but I can’t do that here and still talk about what I think is a central theme of the book.  So …

HERE BE SPOILERS

Banks makes the Kid more a pitiable character than a reprehensible one, but rather than making things easy on himself this opens up a moral gray area that’s far more satisfying than if the Kid were an obvious bad guy.  He’s painted as a neglected child, cared for by a single mother more concerned with finding a man than taking care of her only child.  The Kid has no friends and no girlfriend, and almost by accident he stumbles across online pornography.  He quickly becomes obsessed, probably addicted, and rather than attempt to forge meaningful relationships with his peers, simply drifts around in a fog of online videos and masturbation.  He enlists in the Army but finds himself just as friendless there.  In a misguided attempt to force camaraderie on the rest of his platoon, the Kid buys a bunch of pornographic DVDs to hand out, but is busted during inspection and discharged.  Back in his mother’s home, he returns to the Internet, and that’s where things get tricky.

The Kid strikes up an online correspondence with a teenage girl.  She initially claims to be 18, then admits she’s 14.  This begins as an innocent conversation about the Kid’s pet iguana, Iggy, but it slowly escalates over a period of weeks and ultimately becomes more explicit.  Eventually the Kid schedules a rendezvous at her home, shows up with a backpack full of beer, porn, and condoms, and is busted by the police in what is clearly a sting to catch sexual predators.

And here’s where Banks has been very canny with what I think is meant to be criticism of these kinds of operations, as well as sex offender laws in general.  The escalation to explicitness that I mentioned earlier is initiated and facilitated entirely by the girl, with the Kid playing along only when the girl prompts him.  It’s never made clear if there ever was a girl or if the online conversations were with the police all along, so if you’re reading it the way I’m reading it, there’s an argument to be made that the Kid is the real victim in this situation, manipulated into a potential crime by police who preyed on a lonely, depressed individual.  Of course the Kid should have never gone to her house (again, assuming there’s a her at all), should have known the difference between right and wrong, should have steered clear altogether.  Of course it’s disgusting behavior.  But I keep being drawn back to the issue of manipulation.  If it was a police operation all along, and the Kid was only going to “her” house because he had been goaded into it by law enforcement, is the Kid really guilty of anything?  He certainly never commits a sexual act.  As the conversation plays out, he never even propositions the girl.  He’s guilty of being a skeezy dude who shows up at a teenage girl’s house with beer and porn, and that’s about it.  Gross, yes, but is it worthy of the penalty, which is six months in jail, ten years with a GPS bracelet on his ankle, and a lifetime of stigmatization on the Sex Offender Registry?

I don’t know.  Even as I typed some of those sentences it felt indefensible.  He went.  He had designs.  Surely that counts for something.  And I think that’s where the Kid is sort of an ingenious creation.  He doesn’t give the reader an easy way out, and he also allows us to ask tough questions about some of our country’s legal practices.

FOR THE SPOILER-AVERSE, IT IS NOW SAFE TO READ AGAIN

Also on Banks’ radar are the restrictions placed on the sex offenders in Calusa County (Banks never says Florida by name, but he’s not kidding anyone).  They can’t be within 2,500 feet of schools, playgrounds, libraries – anywhere there’s likely to be children.  That leaves them with their shantytown under the Causeway, the international terminal at the airport, and the Penzacola Swamp (a stand-in for the Everglades).  This restriction lasts for ten years.  Do you see the problem with this situation?  How easy is it to get a job when your address is the swamp?  How likely are you to gain meaningful employment when you’re living in a tent under the highway?  In this situation the sex offenders are released straight from prison and into ten years of homelessness, which, let’s face it, after ten years will likely exist into perpetuity.  I’m all for making sure offenders pay their debt to society – and in many cases they deserve all they get and more, especially when small children are the victims – but the book makes us ask if this lifetime penalty is appropriate for lesser offenders.  Does the Kid deserve his life sentence, based solely on the circumstances?  Is he beyond redemption?  Banks gives us a definitive answer at the end, but the beauty of this ugly book is that it leaves room for dissent.

There’s more – much, much more – to say.  It’s not an easy read.  The Kid is not an easy character to like, nor is the Professor (whom I haven’t really discussed at all, but about whom I could easily write another thousand words).  But if you want to read something that will make you ask important questions about our society, the importance of community, and the possibility of redemption, Lost Memory of Skin is worth the discomfort.

*****

Current listening:

Idlewild remote

Idlewild – The Remote Part (2002)

View from a Shaky Ladder

BookshelfSix months ago I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In early September I realized I had accumulated 150+ books on my “to read” shelves.  A lot of them were fairly recent acquisitions, but some of them had been sitting there for years, following me from Santa Barbara to Atlanta six years ago and not getting any closer to being read.  The larger problem was that I was still buying books so frequently that the situation would only ever get worse, even if I increased my reading pace.  So, in the tradition of the desperate addict, I decided to go cold turkey.  No more buying books until I completely cleared the shelves, and, in the process, this blog was transformed from solipsistic musings on pop culture and politics to solipsistic book reviews.

Six months later, I’ve read 48 books and made a decent amount of headway, especially if you compare the picture here with the photos at the link at the top.  I wish I could report that my attitude toward book consumption has undergone a sea change, that I’ve realized I don’t need to buy books as frequently to satisfy my literary jones, but I’d be lying if I claimed my eye wasn’t so firmly on the prize because I’m so keenly aware of how much good stuff I’m missing out on.  You have no idea, for instance, how much it pains me to know that this project has prevented me from reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.  But I’m fully committed to seeing it through to its conclusion.

And it is fun.  Of course it is.  I’m reacquainting myself with a few authors I hadn’t read in a while and introducing myself to some new voices, and my extended chronological exposure to both Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin has been one of the project’s true pleasures.  So, 48 books in, what’s made an impression?  Here’s the scorecard for the first six months.

Favorite Book(s): I’ve read a lot of good stuff, but nothing has made quite as much of an impact as the very first book I read back in September.  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. is sort of ingenious, an experiment in multiple voices told in the form of marginalia recorded between two readers in a library book.  David Peace’s bleak and brilliant 1980 is another high point, and both Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 and Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden stand as my favorite of the several books of theirs I’ve read so far.

Least Favorite Book(s): It’ll take a lot to top Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I found tedious in a variety of ways: the artificially chipper voice of its narrator, the superfluous scientific tangents, the rice-paper-thin supporting characters, the Crisis-of-the-Day contortions of its plot.  Jonathan Maberry, whose Joe Ledger series I adore, struck out with Dead Man’s Song, the second book in his Pine Deep Trilogy.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is a failed experiment that never rewards the effort it takes to read it.  But at least I remember all three of these, which is more than I can say for Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist.  Goodreads tells me I read it, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a thing about it.

Biggest Surprise, Positive: I’ve never been a science-fiction guy, so Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the most unexpectedly pleasurable thing I read.  Shades of Philip K. Dick and James Ellroy in a story about an android seeking her freedom.

Biggest Surprise, Negative: David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice is an uncharacteristically  mean-spirited collection of sketches.  The author’s typically affectionate tone is missing, replaced with misanthropy and cruelty.  I don’t mind a little misanthropy and cruelty, but it suits Sedaris like a sweater that’s too tight through the shoulders.

A Book Everyone Loves That I Had Problems With: I took a break from writing reviews for a while, and I wish I’d written one about John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I completely understand why this book is a juggernaut in the world of spy fiction.  It’s a labyrinthine tale of Cold War intrigue, full of well-drawn characters working at cross-purposes with a variety of motivations.  It’s a classic.  Totally.  But after a while it got to be too much work – a case (for me, at least) of diminishing returns as I just waited around patiently for le Carré to tie up all the loose ends.

A Book I Loved that I Don’t Think Everyone Else Will Love but I Think Is Worth Reading Anyway: I was sort of blown away by Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  A mystery without resolution, a curdled romance, and a rumination on the effects of war, it’s a book that invites argument.  The fact that O’Brien tells it in stark, spare prose makes it all the more haunting.  It isn’t for everyone – especially for readers who need a satisfying, definitive conclusion – but anyone who appreciates ambiguity as much as I do will find a lot to love.  And, even though I still have a hundred pages to go, I can say with some certainty that Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a powerhouse of a book that dares you to love it.  That review will be coming along in a day or two.

So: six months and 48 books down.  I should have cleared all my shelves in a little over a year and a half from the start date.  Call it June 2016.  Place your bets now.

*****

Current listening:

Fall this

The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

Waiting Around for Grace

sleepy-guy-300x199261What can I say?  I got lazy.  Again.  The thought of cranking out 1,000 words every few days got to be too much for my TV- and video game-loving ass to handle,  and that’s the only excuse I have for the gap in posts between mid-December and mid-February.  I wish I could say I was doing something important – writing a book, traveling the world, solving crimes with a plucky sidekick – but I was probably watching movies and playing Far Cry 4.

And reading.  Loyal followers of this blog will notice I’ve started posting full book reviews again.  As usual, the primary motivator for this was guilt.  I’m asking my students to write and post reviews of what they’re reading this semester, so it seems just a wee bit hypocritical for me not to do the same.  Walking the walk, etc.  And even though I haven’t been posting formal reviews, the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project is still in full swing.  So, in keeping with precedent, here’s a bunch of one-sentence reviews of all the books I read in the lost months of early 2015.

Sherman Alexie – The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A gritty and unforgiving short story collection set in the one corner of the United States we rarely see: a Native American Indian reservation.

Ian Rankin – The Black Book. Rankin’s Inspector Rebus digs into Edinburgh’s history of organized crime to solve a murder in the fifth compelling book in the long-running series.

Russell Banks – Trailerpark. Banks is one of my favorite authors, but this loosely-connected collection of short stories set in the titular mobile home park is an entertaining but ultimately minor work.

Michael Chabon – The Final Solution. Simultaneously clever and slight, it’s unabashed genre fiction (starring a never-explicitly-identified Sherlock Holmes) from one of America’s greatest writers.

Elmore Leonard – 52 Pick Up. One of Elmore Leonard’s first crime novels is also his best – hard-boiled tough-guy deliciousness.

Don DeLillo – The Body Artist. DeLillo wrote one of my favorite books (White Noise), but two months after reading The Body Artist, I don’t remember a single, solitary thing about it, which probably tells you all you need to know.

Jennifer Egan – The Invisible Circus. Egan’s first novel is a stunning, melancholy tour de force about the perils of delving too deeply into family history.

Ian Rankin – Mortal Causes. Rankin broadens his scope in this sixth Inspector Rebus book to take in the connection between Scotland and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Joshua Ferris – Then We Came to the End. A laugh-out-loud condemnation of modern office life, Ferris’ book is Grade-A satire.

Alex Grecian – The Yard. Depicting the birth of Scotland Yard, Grecian’s first book in this series is  a brutal murder mystery that promises great things to come.

Elmore Leonard – Mr. Majestyk. More modern noir from the master of the crime novel, it’s a testament to the badass who refuses to take shit from anyone.

Matt Haig – The Humans. An outer-space alien takes over a professor’s body to protect an intergalactic secret and in the process learns schmaltzy lessons about What it Means to be Human. ™

John Irving – A Widow for One Year.  I love Irving but struggled with this one, an epic-length treatise about family, obsession, and the writing life that takes a long time to go nowhere special.

Ian Rankin – Let it Bleed. After taking on the Troubles, Rankin investigates the corridors of power in the twisty-turny  seventh Inspector Rebus book.

Stephen King – Blaze. An early Stephen King novel (writing as Richard Bachman) that really should have stayed lost.

John Le Carré – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a brilliant spy novel – totally, unequivocally, unquestionably – but holy cow was I bored.

Elmore Leonard – Swag. The funniest of Leonard’s early-career crime novels, it sets the template for all of his subsequent novels that revolve around dim-witted tough guys.

*****

Current listening:

Cure kiss

The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)