Russell Banks has long been considered one of the finest writers of literary fiction in America today. His portrait of the American landscape’s dark side and the tortured souls who inhabit it have leapt from the small page to the big screen in award-winning films such as Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter. LOST MEMORY OF SKIN presents perhaps the most challenging work of Banks’s career. With controversial and dark subject matter that is expertly handled, he creates a novel that will linger in the memory of its readers long after the final page is turned.
"LOST MEMORY OF SKIN presents perhaps the most challenging work of Banks’s career. With controversial and dark subject matter that is expertly handled, he creates a novel that will linger in the memory of its readers long after the final page is turned."
The main characters are not as much “people” as they are symbols and metaphors. With the exception of a few tertiary characters, the central figures here have no names. The protagonist, a convicted sex offender, is known simply as the Kid. In his early 20s, his life is already all but over. Convicted of soliciting sex with a minor, he has done his time in prison and is now forced to live under a causeway in Miami that is inhabited by fellow ex-cons and social miscreants. They represent the sad underbelly of society from which most people avert their eyes; they are the invisible minority.
The Kid is unable to get worthwhile employment, he cannot live within 2,500 feet of where children may gather, and he must wear an electronic device on his ankle for a decade, preventing him from wandering beyond the county limits. Whether the Kid was actually guilty of the crime for which he was incarcerated or set up in a string of potential sex offenders becomes almost irrelevant. The Kid, like most people, has made many mistakes in his life that he wishes he could change. His dark and somewhat perverted impulses have dominated his decision-making process and put him into a situation that seems hopeless.
Then, out of the blue, a local college professor approaches the causeway camp of mostly ex-sex offenders and offers them a deal. He is a sociologist of questionable moral character and full of secrets himself --- but to desperate people like the Kid, he is seen as a potential way out of a life that is virtually non-existent. The Professor offers the Kid and his comrades an opportunity to change their lives by controlling their impulses. In return, the Professor will gain valuable research on homelessness and recidivism among convicted sex offenders.
The Kid and the Professor form a strange bond --- one that is strengthened after the Professor comes to the Kid’s financial aid when a police raid all but destroys every possession he had under the causeway. As they begin to build trust, the Professor slowly lets on about his own past --- one that is full of secrets. The Kid is not sure if he can believe the story the Professor has spun about a man who is under surveillance by certain government agencies that wish to silence him. He makes an odd request of the Kid when he asks him not to believe that suicide is the reason behind his death. The Kid reluctantly agrees.
Meanwhile, the Kid aligns himself with the Writer --- a journalist looking to uncover the truth behind the Professor’s past. It is during this journey into the Professor’s life that the Kid will smack first-hand into a parallel narrative that recalls his own past and questionable moral choices --- and he begins to fear that their fates may be destined to have the same ends.
LOST MEMORY OF SKIN is challenging and profane to the point of pornographic. Yet it is so unflinchingly real that you cannot help but turn the pages as Banks digs deeper and deeper into the psyches that shape the shadowed edges of American culture.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on October 20, 2011
Lost Memory of Skin