Will Byrnes's Reviews > Lost Memory of Skin

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
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's review
May 15, 2012

really liked it
Read from April 30 to May 04, 2011

** spoiler alert ** UPDATED - May 15, 2012 - at bottom

In 1952 Ralph Ellison's seminal novel, Invisible Man, was published. No, not the one that was made into a film with Claude Raines. Ellison's Invisible Man was about how the black man in America was invisible to the wider culture. His towering novel looked at a very troubling aspect of mid-20th century America. Russell Banks has cast a bright light on a segment of our society that 21st Century America not only wants to remain invisible, but which it is actively trying to erase.

The Kid lives under the Causeway in a coastal Florida city. He is 22 years old, small, unambitious, and largely destroyed. His knowledge of his father was no more than a snippet of conversation. The Kid was raised by a mother who engaged in serial relationships. He saw far too much of her at-home activities, and was home far too often unattended. Always small for his age, he was a bully-target and lacked sufficient self-esteem to form much by way of friendships. So, a loner. What he found himself doing to pass the time and, in a drug-like way, to numb the pain of his existence, was to watch porn. When Mom made no objection to his using her money to pay for his essential entertainment, damage was ensured. Eager to finally meet someone real, he looks on Craig's list and enters into an ongoing on-line exchange with a girl a few years his junior. When he finally comes to her house, he is met by the police and his life, at 18, is effectively over.

There are plenty of sex offenders in the world. Some are dangerous. Some are not. Some are tarred with this brush for thoughtlessly urinating in a public place. We might as well cancel the St Paddy’s Day parade. There are criminals of many sorts who serve their time, spend a period on parole, and eventually find their way back to some semblance of a normal life. But for those labeled sex offenders, punishment almost never ends. Even after being released from prison, they are placed on public lists and are subject to limitations that require them to remain specified distances from places where children do or may congregate. The result is that they have become 21st century lepers, relegated to locations at the fringes of society, unable to use public libraries, unable to even exist within large swaths of the territory of the modern world. Political predators who feed on public fear seek favor with the voters by targeting sex offenders, regardless of the expected efficacy of their actions. That is addressed here as well.

Banks looks at the world that the Kid inhabits. A community of offenders comes together in one of the few locations within the fictional city of Calusa, Florida where they can be without violating the law. Enter the Professor, also nameless. He is our window into this world, a sociologist doing research on homeless offenders. He patiently forms a friendship with the Kid, intending to use him for his research, but offering assistance along the way. He comes to care for the young man.
The kid reminds the Professor of Huckleberry Finn somehow. Here he is now, long after he lit out for the Territory, grown older and as deep into the Territory as you can go, camped out alone where the continent and all the rivers meet the sea and there’s no farther place he can run to. The Professor wants to know what happened to that ignorant, abused, honest American boy between the end of the book and now. After he ran from Aunt Sally and her “civilisin,” how did he come years later to having “no money, no job, no legal squat”?
But the Professor has issues of his own. He is a huge man of maybe five hundred pounds, and spends long hours feeding his own addiction, eating. While society may regard his addiction with increasing disdain, no one suggests that fat people be shunned into leper colonies at the edges of town. The Professor has some rather darker secrets as well, which play into the final stages of the book. I will not reveal that info here, but the fact that he has a secret past helps link the Professor thematically with those he is researching.

When my youngest was still in elementary school, I often came along on class outings, usually on foot, trying desperately to keep up with the teachers who all seemed to me to be in training for the marathon. I suppose the pace makes it tougher for eight, nine or ten-year-olds to wander from the assigned route. On one such outing, we walked from a subway station in Brooklyn onto the Brooklyn Bridge. En route, we passed a bus stop which had on its side a larger-than-life-size image of a young, scantily clad female, an inducement to buying some product, underwear, beauty product, goat cheese, something. As we passed this, one cheery young boy turned to me and said “I bet you’d like to tap that, huh Mister Byrnes.” I was horrified. But ours is a culture that worships at the holy altar of profit and if getting from product to profit means coarsening the culture, even to the point of publicly exposing passing children to salacious images, just do it. Sexual content is pervasive in daily life. Billboards show models that have to be considered jail-bait primping about in all manner of undress. And don’t get me started on Brats dolls.
When a society commodifies its children by making them into a consumer group, dehumanizing them by converting them into a crucial, locked–in segment of the economy, and then proceeds to eroticize its products in order to sell them, the children gradually come to be perceived by the rest of the community and by the children themselves as sexual objects. And on the ladder of power, where power is construed sexually instead of economically, the children end up at the bottom rung.
I do not want to give the impression that this is a bloodless lecture on a social issue. Banks is a great novelist and he has given us relatable characters. The Professor struggles with his secrets and addictions. The Kid recognizes that he has done something wrong, but finds some light, instead of succumbing to the sort of dark depression that anyone in such a situation might experience. There are some fog-thin background characters, and some who step a bit out of that mist into further clarity, but the humanity of the Kid and the Professor are primary. There are even non-human characters who work incredibly well as emotional foils. Iggy is the Kid’s rather large pet iguana and bff. Later Einstein, a parrot with a few pretty good lines and Annie an elderly dog add to the warmth factor.

Banks displays his gift for imagery and description as well. He makes use of the local climate as an outward expression of plot and internal character conflict, but offers a wink and nod to the reader while doing so.
The eye of the hurricane: it’s a metaphor for the mental and emotional space where he’s lived most of his life. He thinks this and smiles inwardly. Never quite thought of it that way. Nice, the way the world that surrounds one, the very weather of one’s existence, provides a language for addressing the world inside.
Our secrets and lies make for us a skin to protect our inner selves from the world. What happens when that skin is perforated, or removed? Are we freed or endangered? And what is the truth anyway? The book takes a bit of an existential turn. A new character, the Writer, is introduced late in the game to insert the author into the story. A conversation between the Kid and the Writer embodies this.
If everything’s a lie and nothing’s true like you said, then it doesn’t matter if the Professor’s story is bullshit, right? Is that what you’re saying?
What you believe matters, however. It’s all anyone has to act on. And since what you do is who you are, your actions define you. If you don’t believe anything is true simply because you can’t logically prove what’s true, you won’t do anything. You’ll end up spending your life in a rocking chair looking out at the horizon waiting for an answer that never comes. You might as well be dead. It’s an old philosophical problem
Early on, the Professor uses a treasure map to inspire the Kid, and the inspiration is drawn from belief, not from the reliability of the map. While I take Banks’ point that belief can go a long way toward inspiring one to success, that opens access to a very slippery slope. Not all beliefs are equal, and many are downright dangerous. Putting the contrast between a faith-based worldview and a scientific one in such black and white terms, with the corresponding judgment, is insulting and dangerous. It offers sustenance to those who would seek to inflict their personal beliefs on people who do not share them. There is plenty of room for both science and feeling in this world.

There is a bit of fun to be had with imagery. A giant python crossing a road could easily have Eden-ic implications, but while there are dark and dangerous aspects of life that thoughtless people have inflicted on us all, those on a literary treasure hunt will mostly go home unsatisfied.

I expect that Lost Memory of Skin will not be kindly received in some quarters. The subject matter might make some folks uncomfortable. Good. It should make people uncomfortable enough to take a fresh look at what is largely a very limited view of people who have been painted, en masse, with the same scarlet brush. Like a pointillist image there are enough elements that make up our image of what society calls “sex offenders” to warrant a closer look at what the term actually means.


May 15, 2012 - Switterbug recommended this August, 2011 NY Times article on Sex Offenders as the Last Pariahs in her comment and has ok'd my adding it here
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Comments (showing 1-17)

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switterbug (Betsey) Wow--what an excellent review (mine pales in comparison!). Your first quote is the one I used for my review on mostlyfiction.com

Really really pleasurable to read your reviews, always.

message 16: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Betsey. I do not think your review pales at all. It is detailed and interesting and covers a lot of material I omitted.

message 15: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Claire wrote: "Excellent review, Will. I finished this book last night and I'm still thinking about the many messages it contained. I was particularly struck by how our society is so eager to throw people out - w..."
Thanks, Claire. I am looking forward to seeing your take. Betsey's review is worth reading too.

switterbug (Betsey) Aww....sweetie Will.

Scienceforchildren I'm only 100 pages in but I must say...extremely well written review.

message 12: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Scienceforchildren wrote: "I'm only 100 pages in but I must say...extremely well written review."
I know I write long reviews, but 100 pages?

Thanks. It really is quite an interesting read, the book that is.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Very thoughtful review on a very controversial subject. I am intrigued to read it but I have a feeling I will find it difficult to not become enraged while reading it. I have thought about many of these complex issues and I know it isn't black and white. But we don't put fat people away because they don't destroy the lives of children.

Statistics actually show that sexual offenders are not even as likely to offend as other types of criminals. Unfortunately recividism stats are unreliable because so many sex crimes go unreported. And these crimes are so horrible that many say it's worse than murder. How many new offenses are too many?

There is certainly a difference between statutory rape and regular rape. And most children that offend have been victims themselves. But as a foster parent I've seen first hand what statutory rape of a youth under 16 who has sex with guys in their early 20s. These children are more likely to run away, begin using drugs and have legal troubles. Their self-esteem plummets. This can happen just by meeting someone on Facebook. Yes sometimes they're both symptoms of something else but not always.

I only put this out there because a lot of people don't think statutory rape should be a crime and it sounds like this is discussed in this book. It's important to realize that these questions go both ways.

message 10: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes The book has to do with identifying a part of our society that incurs eternal punishment, even once released from prison, regardless of the severity of their act. In the case cited in the book, the kid actually had no physical contact with anyone under age. Nuance is significant, and adds to our understanding of this difficult subject. It also considers how some other vices are perfectly acceptable to our society. It is a grownup book about a grownup subject.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) I wasn't arguing with you. I get it and I agree these things should be questioned. I also agree that our system is too black and white and biased by opinion. As I said above, statistics do not support the common opinion that most sex-offenders reoffend. It's a difficult subject and I'm glad someone has a addressed it in fiction so that people may actually read it and learn something.

You also mentioned that the kid you're referring to was under 18 right? Totally different ball game. It's also important to note that the lowest level of sexual offender is not listed in national registries. I know of two RSOs whose full names and towns I know who I have not been able to find in any databases. One had reoffended with my foster daughter (rape of a minor, not statutory). The other is trying to get custody of his 4 year old son who was taken from the boy's mother and put into foster care. The RSO thing isn't the issue he's having problems with. (He currently has his 6 year old daughter living with him in a 1 bedroom trailer.) His stumbling blocks are around parole violations unrelated to the sexual offense. He has a good chance of getting the boy. So legal-wise it's not as black and white as it is societally. So books that make us think about it are obviously a good idea. It just doesn't mean I'll enjoy it. :) I did add it to my to-read list.

Will Byrnes You also mentioned that the kid you're referring to was under 18 right?
The Kid is a very young 22, and the girl he contacted on line in the book was, I think, 16. I checked my notes and did not record a specific age, but that is my dim memory of it. The Kid never touches anyone under-age in the book, FWIW.

There is also a lot in the book about recognizing and living with truth that is quite interesting.

Personally I think that Calvin Klein should be an RSO for the pornographic ads he uses to peddle his product, for coarsening our culture so horribly and using models who are certainly under jailbait age to do so.

It's also important to note that the lowest level of sexual offender is not listed in national registries.
In checking that completely reliable resource, Wikipedia, I came across the following: Mooning, streaking or Urination in public is a sex crime in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Vermont. These would be listable as Tier I offenses. Does that mean half the college boys in the USA should be registered?

I get it that this book may not make it to the to the top of your 2Read list any time soon. In any case, there are too many good books out there for you to fret over this one.

switterbug (Betsey) Will wrote: "Claire wrote: "Excellent review, Will. I finished this book last night and I'm still thinking about the many messages it contained. I was particularly struck by how our society is so eager to throw..."

Thank you, Claire!

switterbug (Betsey) In Texas, a prostitute, for instance, can be 16 but posing as an "of age" woman. A man of 20, for instance, that solicits her and gets caught? Will be put on the national registry.

The best thing that Banks did, regardless of where an individual is with this issue, is to create dialogue, open it up for people to air and share ideas.

What I saw as the central premise of the central premise was what Will was saying. Re this crime, it causes so much emotional carnage to society that they throw out the baby with the bathwater. For example, the protagonist in this book, who was certainly capable of turning his life around, was already ostracized by society.

I am a psychiatric nurse (work with adolescents now)--I have worked with many sex offenders. I do know that most offenders have been victims first. The cycle is passed on. So, what I would like is a way to break the cycle. I a not convinced that society has done a whole lot to do this.

I can see both sides of the argument. I have a tendency to play Devil's Advocate because most of us already are possessed by wanting to punish and ostracize sex offenders. And, certainly, if someone had violated my daughter, I would probably be in a murderous rage! However, regardless of my own personal feelings, I do think the justice system has lumped all SO's together in one categorical lump.

switterbug (Betsey) This is an acutely intelligent article I read last year.


Will Byrnes Incredible link, Bug (and informed comment, of course). I would like to attach this directly to the review as an update, attributed of course, if that is ok with you.

message 2: by Laura (new)

Laura Such a raw and difficult topic, that your review manages so well, Will. And what actually occurred versus what is actually proved in the criminal justice system is yet another layer that confuses it more. It's such a despicable topic that people are happy to reverse the target and make the perps pay with indelible distain, especially when the initial targets are children. All victims are innocents though really, and I care more about them than someone who slipped down a slippery slope of misplaced beliefs. Suffice to say, each "sexual offender" case is individual, and painting with too broad a brush can distort the truth, and damn those that may deserve a different distinction/category. Thanks for such a reminder Will.

Will Byrnes Thanks, Laura. If you have not already done so, take a look a the article that Switterbug recommended. It adds a lot to the discussion.

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