Russell 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.
Idlewild – The Remote Part (2002)