I don’t read much fiction, especially of the contemporary navel-gazing variety, but Russell Banks is one of those novelists I’d kept meaning to read over the years. He seems drawn to subjects that are off-putting or “difficult,” like school bus tragedies (The Sweet Hereafter), race war (Cloudsplitter), alcoholism (Affliction) and the self-evident Trailerpark. In his most recent novel, Lost Memory of Skin, Banks takes on sex offenders and the homeless, two subjects that are not high on most people’s reading-list agendas. Nonetheless, for my vacation, I grabbed the trade paper edition of this novel and took it to the beach. Almost miraculously, Banks conjures something special out of the dark detritus of the human soul in Lost Memory of Skin. It is as humane as it is gripping; as the cliché has it, I could not put it down.
The novel was somewhat controversial when published, because it deals with a colony of homeless men in Miami who, because they are convicted sex offenders, are required to live under the causeway bridge that leads to Miami Beach because it’s the only locale in the county that is sufficiently far away from schools, day care centers and residences where children live to fall within the letter of the law. Banks, who lives part time in Miami Beach, studied that lost colony of men—the modern urban equivalent of the Molokai leper colony—and drew his inspiration from it. His representative of the colony is known in the novel as the Kid, a 22-year-old son of a single mother who never knew his father and was kicked out of the Army for buying porn films to give his buddies in the platoon. After returning “home” to the Miami area, the Kid was arrested for soliciting sex over the Internet with a 14-year-old girl. Technically a virgin, the Kid’s entire erotic life is comprised of Internet porn viewing, a habit he began as early as age 11. His only contact with another living creature is Iggy, his six-foot-long iguana. After serving his prison term, he goes to live under the causeway bridge because he literally has nowhere else to go. Somehow, though, he pieces together an existence out of this hellish set of circumstances that, though inconceivable to most people, makes a certain amount of sense to the Kid.
The Kid maintains his humanity and, unlike many of the other offenders, does not try to justify what he was caught doing or blame it on anyone else. He is a modern Huck Finn, of sorts, and his trip down the Mississippi River comes in the form of an attempt to escape his fate by living on a houseboat in the Everglades, among the snakes and alligators and leeches.
Though Banks probably didn’t intend this, the power of his language, his passion and perceptions makes the reader feel that, in an age of instant porn that even attaches like chewing gum to the shoe heel of one’s email inbox and spam queue unwanted and unsolicited, the whole world is one big sex offense. We are all guilty because no one is really innocent any more, not even our children who we are allegedly trying to protect. Yes, sex offenders must be prosecuted for their crimes. But why, oh why, do there seem to be more and more of them born every day? Are we creating sex offenders by being prudish and condemning while also injecting sex into every corner of our culture? Or are we more aware of them now?
Like all good novelists, Banks enters the lives of these men and views the world through their eyes. One could say he then forces the reader to confront something that would otherwise be avoided as too unpleasant. And yet, there is nothing forced or contrived about the novel. It is a brilliant snapshot of the moral universe that exists today not just under a causeway in Miami but in all four corners of this country.
Here is a superb interview that Amy Goodman of Democracy Now conducted with Banks about Lost Memory of Skin and the issues it raises.