Book Review: Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Russell Banks writes fluid prose about often mundane and uncomfortable topics. His characters inhabit the edges of society, and sometimes are a little scummy. His stories contain a hint of magical realism, yet never quite stray from the dirty realities of life. Lost  Memory of Skin is no exception. From the very beginning he says: we’re going somewhere you never thought you’d go, reader, and that’s right into the world of convicted sex offenders. And we’re going to make one of them seem, well, almost like you or at least someone you perhaps know, except for a few dumb mistakes. But we’re also going to let you know what could happen if you, yes you, continue on with your porn addiction and don’t get treated. You could end up like this young man, or worse.

Known to himself and pretty much everyone else as the Kid, the main character lives in Florida, under a causeway, by a bay, with other convicted sex offenders, all of whom are on parole and must wear a battery operated anklet so that their caseworker can track them. Banks chose to create a somewhat fictional area of Florida, closely based upon actual places in Florida. As registered sex offenders, they have to reside a certain distance away from anywhere children might gather, so the Causeway is one of the few places they can live. The Kid brought his pet Iguana to live there with him:

“Its name is Iggy which the Kid now thinks is sort of dumb but he was only ten when his mother presented him with the iguana and the singer Iggy Pop for some reason was the first thing that came into his head and eventually the iguana and itIguanas name became one the way he and his name Kid have become one and it was too late by then to change it.”

The iguana, and the way he cares for it, is the first indication that the Kid has a soft side. We also quickly learn that his mother did little to raise him, leaving him on his own way too much. Banks has us wondering what this lost soul did to earn himself a tent under the Causeway, especially since the Kid despises those who watch kiddie porn or, worse, have sex with children.

When the police raid the Causeway, breaking his friend’s leg, killing Iggy, and leaving the Kid wondering where to go, we are introduced to the second main character. This is when Banks makes it clear there’s an element of magical realism operating in this tale, because The Professor is fatter and smarter than any man could ever be. He’s a caricature, with his special refrigerator stocked just for him, his constant eating, and his enormous suits and overalls. He claims to be doing a research study on homeless sex offenders, and wants to interview the Kid.

The Kid is skeptical. He has learned that nothing is what it seems in this world. He trusts no one, not even himself, yet he has his own sense of what is right and wrong. If you can pay for food, you don’t raid the dumpster behind the grocery store. If you need to, you only take what you can use.

As the Professor and the Kid go on their separate journeys to themselves while the Professor gains the Kid’s partial trust, we do eventually learn what the Kid did to warrant jail time and ten years of parole. I won’t spoil that for you, just to say that, in the end, like most of Bank’s characters, we neither like nor dislike him, and we probably wouldn’t want to have lunch with him, but he becomes very real.

I do wish that Bank’s editor had made him take out his James Michener copycat section. The Kid dreams the history of the made-up swampland, with the geology, the animals, and the first human inhabitants, etc. It’s like bad deja vu, if you’ve ever read any of Michener’s books. Otherwise, I enjoyed this novel immensely, even as its subject matter sometimes bothered me.

If you love reading about the human condition, and don’t mind some unrealistic bits, you would enjoy this novel. Warning: This is not a book for those who can’t stand strong language. Nor is it a book for those who think sex-offenders should automatically be left on a desert island to starve to death.

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