"Lost Memory of Skin," Russell Banks' newest novel, is a startling dose of American zeitgeist. Banks casts a reptilian eye over everything from the internet to homelessness and the nature of truth, but the book stays admirably concrete right from the start. It's also jarring. Within the first few paragraphs we know that, like it or not, a sex offender will be our friend for the duration.
"They were pariahs of the most extreme sort," Banks tells us, "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."
Painting a likeable sex criminal is a tall order, but Banks pulls it off both intellectually and emotionally. The young man - he calls himself Kid - is a little pathetic and victimized, but very funny. His honesty is appealing, as is his nurturing spirit, even if it's directed at a six-foot, 30-pound iguana. You can't help but like the guy, despite early hints at some lurid crime.
We don't find out the details of the Kid's offense until halfway through the book, and the results are a bit of a let-down. Not only was his crime small potatoes - he brought some porn and beer to an underage girl he met online - but he truly regrets it. The Kid's just a nice boy caught in a silly mistake, and we can continue on with his halting rise from victimization.
By the time we learn that the Kid's crime isn't the book's substance, it blossoms into a bright novel of ideas. Though set on the outskirts of a city much like present-day Miami - where Banks lives when not in the Adirondacks it indicts the whole, sprawling Internet sphere.
Exhibit A: the Kid, who's lived on a steady diet of hardcore porn since pre-adolescence. Exhibit B: the Professor, an offensively obese sociologist whose genius IQ and concern for the Kid masks a history as a spy and double -agent. While the Kid's story is compelling, wrenching, the Professor's feels like a stretch. His addiction to food doesn't carry the same weight as the Kid's struggle with porn. He's aloof and secretive like the Kid, but also manipulative. Even at the end he still feels like a sneaky caricature of a fat man.
Using the two characters as approximate foils, Banks suggests that the isolation of Calusa County sex offenders (required to live 2,500 feet from wherever children might gather) is a crime against the criminals. He invites speculation on whether addiction is a punishable offense, if GPS trackers are humane or even logical, and if a world in which everything is available online is one we really want to live in.
Banks narration often settles into a pleasing poetic cadence, especially in passages about nature. Each sentence leans forward into the next, without much punctuation to slow the sleek flow of thought. The dialogue is sparing and delicate.
This impressive line-by-line style holds together the novel's unconventional structure. The plot alternates between narrative chapters and a series of interviews between Kid and the Professor. Banks' storytelling voice is strong, sometimes strong enough to overpower both Kid and Professor. The men are reticent to share their past in dialogue, so the omniscient narrator falls back on a pair of lengthy and distracting flashbacks.
But Kid's character shines through the unexpected format. By the time he reveals the nature of his crime, we're firmly in his corner.
"He's not sure how to behave as if he were already a man with three dimensions," Banks says, but we believe in his dimensionality before he has a clue. Kid is clearly flesh and blood and willpower; by the end even he can see it.
In the moments before the Kid was caught and jailed, Banks says "He was about to bump up against and break through an invisible membrane between the perfectly controlled world locking his head and the endlessly overflowing unpredictable, dangerous world outside." Reading "Lost Memory of Skin" is as surprising and chilling as the real world, and deserves to be read on many scales. It's a perceptive journey through that membrane of control, with Banks' strong intellect and style as a reassuring guide.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.