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Lost Memory of Skin

by Russell Banks

Harper Collins | 2011

Reviewed by Emily Rosen

This book may go down as Russell Banks’ best-to-date.  It is hefty in size, concepts and ambivalence, and although it is hardly to be labeled a book of “action,” one gets the sense that stuff is happening on each page.         Banks plows into the heart and guts of his characters with a word palette that is meticulous in detail, color, composition and dimension, so that by the time his canvas is complete, three “D” people walk out of his pages in full flesh with their thoughts, feelings and contradictions spread across their bodies in clear signage. Lost Memory of Skin is a remarkable blend of character and social issues.

The novel is essentially about losers who are not what they seem to be. The protagonist calls himself “The Kid.” He is a 22-year old skinny convicted sex offender whose personality “had no specialty.”

He must wear an ankle locator for the ten years of his probation, and must never “locate” any closer than 2500 feet from where children might reasonably be expected to assemble. He therefore winds up living under “The Causeway,” in fictitious Calusa, (Miami?) living among a motley group of other banished-from-society sex offenders. He is obsessively caring of his beloved 30 foot, full grown pet iguana, “Iggy.”

Along comes “The Professor,” an obese, “three times fat,” sociologist bent on studying the habits and lives of this segment of underworld society. He hooks up with “The Kid” in a kind of arrangement wherein the kid agrees to “be studied.”

In a discussion with his wife, Gloria, (“Glory-Glory-Hallelujah”) the professor tries to explain the psychology of sex offenders: “We cast them aside. We treat them like pariahs, when in fact we should be studying them up close … as if they were fellow human beings who have reverted to being … gorillas, and whose genetic identity with us … can teach us what we ourselves are capable of becoming … if we don’t reverse the social elements that caused them to abandon a particularly useful set of sexual taboos in the first place.”

The professor is lofty, if not entirely credible, and in his eagerness to uncover the elements of character that converge into producing a full fledged sex offender, his reliance on pornography could well be a clue into his own inner being.

There is a strong section of relevance to the reality that “texting” has overtaken our language, wherein The Kid’s email messages illuminate the naked truth of its escalating distortion.

The Kid is unsophisticated and compassionate, searching for connectivity, yet wary of human contact, uneducated but uncannily perceptive, perhaps even smart, except for the time he was stupid enough to get caught in a sting while considering the possibility of having sex with a minor.  

As the second part of the book unfolds, Banks switches from character to plot and teases us with a bit of mystery shrouded in Socratic philosophy, and an endless, repetitive dissection of the old search for  “truth.”

After a major hurricane has caused The Kid to evacuate from his Causeway Home, he retreats to the Panzacola Swamp, (The Everglades?) where he finds temporary paradise as he navigates a rented houseboat into the solitude of the glades and feels a strong affinity with the local birds and swamp animals.  Graphic and accurately historic in his descriptions of the area, Banks calls forth some of the works of renowned Everglades activist, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

The first page of the book quotes Metamorphoses: “Now I am ready to tell how bodies change,” which is a hint as to the book’s title.

Lost Memory of Skin should have ended several pages before it actually did, and knowing how writers tend to fall in love with their words, I am surprised that Banks’ editor didn’t slash some of the redundancies, but they are well worth slogging through to savor true craftsmanship.

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