Lost Memory of Skin
by Russell Banks
Sexual offenders are considered social pariahs, the lowest of the low in the hierarchy of evil-doers. Actually, I meant to write “sexual predators”—because they are not always one and the same. The distinction, which involves intention as well as context, is at the center of Russell Banks’s difficult, provocative, and ultimately mesmerizing book, Lost Memory of Skin.
Banks introduces as his protagonist a young man, twenty-two years old, but with the emotional and physical stature of someone in his mid-teens. Kid, as he’s called, has served time for a sexual offense not made clear until well into the book. After ten months in prison (time off for good behavior), he emerges with an ankle monitor, a listing on the National Sex Offenders Registry, and a prohibition against living or working near children. These limitations make it impossible for him to find either steady employment or a place to live, so he joins other homeless sex offenders beneath the Causeway with Iggy, his beloved pet iguana.
Kid lacks basic social skills, which explains his connection to the un-emotive, yet strangely affecting, iguana. In fact, what he knows is gleaned from the Internet, the ultimate contemporary pal of a quintessentially alienated 21st century child. Barely raised by an inattentive mother with a rotating list of male friends, Kid is eventually pushed into the back yard, where, with the help of a long power cord and his mother’s charge card, he entertains himself by surfing easily accessible porn sites.
The porn sites are what eventually lead Kid into trouble, but in truth, he doesn’t appear to have a predatory bone in his body. He is neat, conscientious, respectful, kind to animals, inquisitive, and suffused with shame. The system doesn’t distinguish between kinds of sexual offenses, however. Kid, like the other sex offenders with whom he makes camp, lives a precarious existence under the causeway that leads into a south Florida city that sounds a lot like Miami.
Until he meets The Professor.
This new character arrives nearly halfway into the story, pumping much-needed adrenaline into the plot that was threatening to meander. The Professor is outsized in every way imaginable—tall and enormously fat as well as wildly brilliant. He possesses a massive ego (he’s conducting a ground-breaking study on sexual offenders that might result in their eventual reintegration into society), and several peculiar habits. The scenes depicting his strange proclivities are sensitively, even lyrically rendered. We’re reminded that many people with needs, urges, addictions, and desires we might find strange operate well within the margins of society. The Professor, after all, is a respected member of society with a wife and two children.
He’s also a teacher who finds himself captivated by Kid’s capacity for self-awareness and feeds it with a series of “interviews” in which he and the Kid discuss not only their personal histories, but also weighty issues of faith philosophy, sociology, and culture. The Professor also enlists Kid to help organize the loose-knit group of Causeway denizens into a cohesive social unit, his theory being that a sexual offender with something to live for will become something more. Kid is an adept student and he takes to responsibility like a duck to water. Meanwhile, his time with the Professor gets him talking and thinking, and allows him to reexamine his choices and dare to reach for a dignity born of self-respect.
The book occasionally feels like a lecture, but maybe that’s because I already know that our judicial system is less impartial than we’d like to believe; that the Internet is potentially toxic to social misfits, especially unsupervised kids; that we protect ourselves with snap judgments and first impressions.
But if the world is a bleak place, it is also one in which humanity can gain a toehold. Kid is transformed in a way no penal system or counseling session could achieve. Banks leaves us with the reminder that while self-knowledge is hard-won, the rewards are worthwhile: a sense of empowerment and a clear shot at, if not redemption, then at least a truce with oneself.