Book Review: Russell Banks Takes Readers Under the Bridge, Into the Life of Sex Offenders in ‘Lost Memory of Skin’
by James Hardy
This created an impossible situation for offenders outside state custody. In a dense urban community with limited affordable housing options, there was nowhere to live in compliance with the law’s half-mile mandate. Within months of the law’s implementation, approximately 140 men and a few women were living in a makeshift encampment under the Julia Tuttle Causeway on the outskirts of Miami. Because a lobbyist named Ron Book had championed the law, this encampment became known as “Bookville.”
This modern-day leper colony is the subject of Russell Banks’ novel, “Lost Memory of Skin.” In Banks’ rendering, the causeway encampment is a purgatory for “pariahs of the most extreme sort, American untouchables, a caste of men ranked far below the merely alcoholic, addicted, or deranged homeless. They were men beyond redemption, care, or cure, both despicable and impossible to remove and thus by most people simply wished out of existence.”
This portrayal will be instantly recognizable to any attorney whose practice involves sex offenses or anyone whose life has been affected in some way by a sex offense. The typical social and legal response to a sex offense is to stigmatize, ostracize, and dehumanize the alleged perpetrator. Banks’ novel questions the proportionality of these responses and examines society’s role in the creation of a sex offender.
The book’s protagonist and our guide to this literal underworld is the Kid. The Kid is a disillusioned naïf: a 22-year-old virgin who’s never touched an actual woman. The Kid is a convicted sex offender. He’s also the boy next door.
The Kid has a latchkey upbringing; the Internet raises him more than his single mother. His adolescent bedroom is a shed in the backyard, which suits mother and son fine. Mom pursues her affairs unhindered by motherly duties. The Kid has the privacy necessary for a daily 12-hour diet of Internet pornography.
Jut-eared, shy, and short, the Kid is few people’s idea of a menace to society. As Banks portrays him, he is a barely exaggerated version of the typical modern teenage boy left to his own devices—the kind of teenage boy whose introduction and only access to the world of human sexual relations is the Internet. In other words, someone we all know.
After he leaves home for the Army and, he hopes, Afghanistan, the Kid gets kicked out during basic training when his enthusiasm for his favorite porn actress leads him to distribute pirated copies of one of her videos. (The Army kicks him out for copyright infringement, not content.) Sent back to Mom’s backyard and entering adulthood lonely and disconnected, the Kid resorts to Internet chat rooms, leading to his downfall.
Longing for actual human contact, the Kid allows himself to be drawn into a “To Catch a Predator”-type sting where, after months of coy chat sessions with “brandi18,” he finds himself in a suburban kitchen explaining why he is seeking sex with a hypothetical 14-year-old girl to her hypothetical father, a police officer. He pleads guilty (and there is no denying he is guilty of a crime), serves six months, and is released with a GPS ankle bracelet, 10 years of parole, and the conditions of the new law.
The Kid soon finds himself under the bridge, where he and his only friend, Iggy, a 6-foot long Iguana (a best friend with simple relationship needs and prickly skin), join the exiles. As the Kid soon learns, forcing all sex offenders into one place only causes more hysteria when compliance with the law works too well. As with the real Bookville, when the causeway encampment becomes too large, community revulsion requires its elimination in the name of public safety. In the novel, a SWAT team clears the sex offenders out from under the causeway, liberally applying dehumanizing epithets and batons.
After this second exile, the Kid gains an anthropological admirer—Banks’ second protagonist, the Professor. He seeks sociological explanations for increased American pedophilia and takes an interest in the Kid and his fellow exiles. The Professor becomes the Kid’s benefactor, helping him re-establish a makeshift communal government under the bridge.
While doing so, the Professor observes that the causeway encampment is a symptom of American culture. He muses: “When a society commodifies its children by making them into a crucial, locked-in segment of the economy, and then proceeds to eroticize its products in order to sell them, the children gradually come to be perceived by the rest of the community and by the children themselves as sexual objects. And on the ladder of power, where power is construed sexually instead of economically, the children end up at the bottom rung.” Anyone who has ever browsed even the mildest of adult offerings on the Internet, paged through a mass-market fashion magazine, or watched the commercials during an NFL broadcast will understand the Professor’s observations.
But it is hard to tell whether Banks speaks through the Professor because the Professor is a cipher—his true character and motivations are never clear. He possesses a genius IQ and a shadowy past in counterintelligence, at least purportedly. He also is morbidly obese, an insatiable glutton married to a woman who exists to feed him, raise his children, and play the object to his autoeroticism, the Professor’s own form of voyeurism and sexual deviance.
Although Banks grants us access to the Professor’s inner thoughts, the man is a mystery to himself, so compartmentalized the reader cannot fully trust a word he says. The Kid—reticent and distrusting of all humanity after his chat room experience—is an open book by comparison.
Despite his charity and sociological perception, the Professor cannot save the Kid from his fate or help connect the Kid to the world of human relationships. Even the Professor’s attempts at introducing the Kid and his campmates into rudimentary communal living are for naught. Re-established after being rousted by the police, the causeway encampment is soon cleared again by an act of God, a hurricane that evicts some settlers and kills others. For these men, it is unclear which is the better fate.
Banks’ novel is about what happens when the condemned are kicked out of Hell, a “Pilgrim’s Progress” for these hyperlinked times. The slough of despond in Banks’ rendering is of our own creation—the Internet. The Kid must swear off the Internet and the lure of pornography completely to see his way through, but the other side holds no promise of human solace.
The Kid’s salvation is isolation in a houseboat in the Great Panzacola Swamp. There he does not risk violating his parole or a beating from the police, but this solution completes his exile.
The lost memory of the title is not the Kid’s. Raised by the Internet without a human guide to this world, the Kid never had that memory to lose. Rather, it is postmodern America’s surrender of the hard but rewarding work of real-world human relationships to the cold radiant glow of a racy and narcissistic virtual world.
This is heavy stuff. But Banks’ sociological observations and his steadfast moral compass rarely interfere with his engaging story. Although the novel’s plot begs an allegorical reading, Banks’ characters, despite their names, are individuals, not allegorical types. The Kid and the Professor jump off the page. We feel we know these men better than they know themselves; it is a telling portrait of characters who cannot assimilate into society.
In an era where first-person narration and an unhindered confessional style are the norm, Banks employs a true omniscient narrator and leaves much unexplained. Some readers will find him too sympathetic to his main characters—a convicted sex offender and a self-important glutton who perhaps has more frightening skeletons in his closet. Others, however, will find Banks too unsparing, too brutal in his estimation of these outcasts and their prospects for redemption.
In other words, Banks hits a nerve. His narrative turns these exiled and reviled men into flesh and blood human beings. It also indicts a culture saturated in sex, creepily obsessed by youth, and devoid of human warmth and intimacy.
Any attorney whose practice involves sex offenses will be especially rewarded by “Lost Memory of Skin.” Those interested in the intersection of America’s sexual attitudes, law, morality, and the Internet also will be enriched. But any reader concerned with human frailty and dignity should read this novel. It is an important and humane work. D
James S. Hardy is a Deputy Colorado State Public Defender in the Appellate Division. He can be reached at email@example.com.