Lost Memory of Skin
A Novel by Russell Banks
2011 / 417 Pages
The Setup: The acclaimed author of The Sweet Hereafter and Rule of the Bone returns with a provocative new novel that illuminates the shadowed edges of contemporary American culture with startling and unforgettable results
Suspended in a strangely modern-day version of limbo, the young man at the center of Russell Banks’s uncompromising and morally complex new novel must create a life for himself in the wake of incarceration. Known in his new identity only as the Kid, and on probation after doing time for a liaison with an underage girl, he is shackled to a GPS monitoring device and forbidden to live within 2,500 feet of anywhere children might gather. With nowhere else to go, the Kid takes up residence under a south Florida causeway, in a makeshift encampment with other convicted sex offenders.
Barely beyond childhood himself, the Kid, despite his crime, is in many ways an innocent, trapped by impulses and foolish choices he himself struggles to comprehend. Enter the Professor, a man who has built his own life on secrets and lies. A university sociologist of enormous size and intellect, he finds in the Kid the perfect subject for his research on homelessness and recidivism among convicted sex offenders. The two men forge a tentative partnership, the Kid remaining wary of the Professor’s motives even as he accepts the counsel and financial assistance of the older man.
When the camp beneath the causeway is raided by the police, and later, when a hurricane all but destroys the settlement, the Professor tries to help the Kid in practical matters while trying to teach his young charge new ways of looking at, and understanding, what he has done. But when the Professor’s past resurfaces and threatens to destroy his carefully constructed world, the balance in the two men’s relationship shifts.
Suddenly, the Kid must reconsider everything he has come to believe, and choose what course of action to take when faced with a new kind of moral decision.
Long one of our most acute and insightful novelists, Russell Banks often examines the indistinct boundaries between our intentions and actions. A mature and masterful work of contemporary fiction from one of our most accomplished storytellers, Lost Memory of Skin unfolds in language both powerful and beautifully lyrical, show-casing Banks at his most compelling, his reckless sense of humor and intense empathy at full bore.
The perfect convergence of writer and subject, Lost Memory of Skin probes the zeitgeist of a troubled society where zero tolerance has erased any hope of subtlety and compassion—a society where isolating the offender has perhaps created a new kind of victim. (From the hardcover edition)
Most of the individuals who are convicted of committing a crime spend a period of time in jail, followed by a lengthy parole process, and then debt to society paid, are freed from their required punishments and released fully into the world to pursue rebuilding their lives. Not so in the case of sexual offenders.
Branded for life, their punishment never ends. After serving out their sentences they are still required to be registered and appear on national offender databases, they are not allowed to live or gather within so many feet of public schools or playgrounds, and they are barred from using publicly funded facilities such as local libraries.
We live in a constant state of fear when it comes to these individuals. We want to monitor and track their whereabouts every second of the day. We want to keep them away from our children and our loved ones. We want to deny them some very basic freedoms that we all take for granted on a daily basis. We want to dehumanize them and treat them as less than equal. There’s one very big problem with doing that however.
Got trashed and peed in public where someone happened to see you? Sex Offender. Raped a girl? Sex offender. Had sex with your fifteen year old girlfriend when you had just turned eighteen and her parents found out? Sex offender. Sexually abused a child? Sex offender. You’re a middle-schooler who got a naked picture of a female classmate sent to your phone that you then forwarded on after being pressured by a friend? Sex offender.
From the smallest mistake or misunderstanding to the most heinous of offenses, all those that are found guilty of a sex crime, dangerous or not, are lumped together as social outcasts and treated like nothing more than society’s garbage. Scorned by their friends and families many end up with no other option then to become homeless. They certainly can’t stay at a shelter where children might be present. Some might wrongly argue that being forced into a life on the streets is justified when it comes to the more violent offenders, but what of the others? What becomes of those who made a foolish, often forgivable mistake in their youth?
Enter the protagonist of Russell Banks’ new novel Lost Memory of Skin. Known only as the Kid, he’s a young male in his early twenties that has been forced to live under a bridge where a loose community of sex offenders has formed. Along with the swamp and the airport, the bridge is one of only three areas in the state of Florida that meets the most important requirement for his parole: he must reside at least 2,500 feet away from any area where children congregate. To ensure that he abides by this condition he is monitored by an ankle bracelet which needs to be recharged roughly once every three days.
Make no mistake about it, the Kid committed a crime, but as the novel opens it’s unclear exactly how severe in nature his offense was. As the story in the first section is narrated through his eyes, the reader begins to form a strange attachment to him. He’s a convicted sex offender, but he’s also a confused, somewhat trouble human being. He’s a young man that’s struggling to come to terms with what it means to become an adult while at the very same time being forced to live shoulder to shoulder with other perpetrators of sexual crimes by the very demographic he’s grown into.
As story unfolds the Kid meets the Professor. He’s an extremely overweight older man with a genius IQ that has conducted numerous studies on the effects of homelessness. He’s now looking to focus in on homeless sexual offenders and thinks that interviewing the Kid will help him gain a better understanding as to what makes a person commit such a crime and how they deal with the fallout from their actions.
At first the Kid is reluctant, but eventually he begins to see the Professor as an older, wiser mentor figure that can help him wade through his confusion and make sense of his life. The Professor however is not exactly who he appears to be and through his character the reader is forced to realize that convicted of any type of crime or not, everyone has their own unique secrets and addictions that they hide from the world. Certainly the humongous professor isn’t concealing his love for food from anyone, but he is playing at a dangerous game that could ultimately cost him everything. As the Professor’s life begins to unravel the Kid is forced to make some hard determinations based only his limited understanding of both the man and his blurry understanding of his supposed past.
Who can you turn to when those you’ve turned to have turned in an unexpected direction? Has the Kid grown enough to make a moral decision of a different kind, or is he irrevocably scarred by his past experiences and current situation?
In the final segment of the book Banks injects himself into the tale in the form of the Writer, a character that arrives on the scene at this critical juncture in the the Kid’s life and attempts to help him work through his mixed feelings by pitting logic against belief in a battle where ultimately only one school of thought can be victorious.
With Lost Memory of Skin Russell Banks has taken a hot button issue that many would like to ignore and has spun a fictional tale that attaches an all too human face to those that have been branded as sexual offenders for the rest of their lives. Its subject matter is dark, but the novel is an engrossing, thought-provoking read that doesn’t offer up any easy answers to questions that it raises because sadly there are none to be found.