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Controversial subject matter - but gripping view of a hidden world
on 21 January 2012
Some readers may understandably be deterred from reading Russell Banks's "Lost Memory of Skin" due to its controversial subject matter and there's no doubt that it's a morally complex read. The main character, known only to us at "the Kid" is a young man who is a convicted sex offender. Set in south Florida, he is forced to reside, with other offenders and his pet Iguana, under a causeway. While living here, he encounters a huge and enigmatic man, known only as "the Professor" from the local university who is apparently studying homelessness amongst sex offenders and the two form an uneasy friendship.
Banks's languid writing style draws you into the story and in some ways it brings to mind some of the great coming-of-age novels of the US, such as "Catcher in the Rye" and even "Huckleberry Finn". Although physically somewhat older than the protagonists of those novels, the Kid's emotional age is not that different and the crimes for which he has been convicted are more down to naivety than anything substantially evil. By having the Kid represent the plight of these sex offenders is partly what makes this morally challenging as it's easy to if not forgive, then understand the circumstances that led to his crime while others have a more troubling moral background. This is, I suspect, part of what Banks is getting at in terms of the tendency to categorize everyone under the same term.
Banks also challenges the patently daft and morally questionable way the US justice system deals with these offenders. The Kid, like his colleagues, has been released from prison but is still on, in his case, a ten year parole whereby he is required to wear a tracking device, banned from moving out of Calousa county but not allowed to live within 2500 feet of any school, playground etc. This equates to a radius of 9.25 million square feet. In an urban county this means that there are only three places that don't intersect these circles: under the causeway, out in the swamp or the international airport where police can arrest you for vagrancy effectively ruling this option out. Thus, the system enforces homelessness. This situation is repeatedly emphasized and at times, Banks can get a little preachy on the situation, albeit understandably. Whatever the answer is, this surely isn't it.
The situation is so ridiculous that you find yourself sympathizing with the Kid, and empathizing with a sex offender is not an easy place to sit. It's a measure of Banks's style and skill that allows the reader to sit there. Despite my initial resistance, I was drawn in to his story and to the strange relationship with the Professor.
It's when the story turns to focus more on the Professor's background, about three quarters of the way through the book, that the book takes another uncomfortable twist. I won't reveal details, but he has a past - although what that is is somewhat open to debate. We are told that the Professor's character allows him to compartmentalize the past and to some extent, perhaps he is representing everyman in the ways we compartmentalize all sex offenders under one bracket and can dismiss them all under the same moral judgement. Either way, the story gets a little weird from this point on and for me at least didn't seem to quite fit with the tone of the rest of the book.
It's a book that certainly stimulates debate. There's a fair amount of what can be termed "adult content" particularly relating to the Kid's childhood porn addiction, some debate over good and evil and if that is intrinsic or a label we apply, and huge questions over the morals of the treatment of offenders in the US. While the questions asked are not always comfortable, the questions it asks are important and the book itself is highly readable and draws you in to the story.