switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > Lost Memory of Skin

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
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Sep 28, 11

Read in August, 2011

The main character of Banks’ new novel, a twenty-two-year-old registered sex offender in South Florida known only as “the Kid,” may initially repel readers. The Kid is recently out of jail and on ten-year probation in fictional Calusa County, and is required to wear a GPS after soliciting sex from an underage girl. Ironically, he is still a virgin.

The Kid cannot leave the county, but he also cannot reside within 2,500 feet from any place children would congregate. That leaves three options—the swamplands, the airport area, or the Causeway. He chooses the Causeway and meets other sex offenders, a seriously motley crew, who consciously isolate from each other. He befriends one old man, the Rabbit, but sticks to his tent, his bicycle, and his alligator-size pet iguana, Iggy. Later, he procures a Bible.

These disenfranchised convicts are enough to make readers squirm. Moreover, in the back of the reader’s mind is the question of whether authorial intrusion will be employed in an attempt to manipulate the reader into sympathizing with these outcasts. It takes a master storyteller, one who can circumnavigate the ick factor, or, rather, subsume it into a morally complex and irresistible reading experience, to lure the wary, veteran reader.

Banks’ artful narrative eases us in slowly and deftly breaks down resistance, piercing the wall of repugnance. It infiltrates bias, reinforced by social bias, and allows you to eclipse antipathy and enter the sphere of the damned. A willing reader ultimately discovers a captivating story, and reaches a crest of understanding for one young man without needing to accept him.

An illegal police raid on the Causeway, provoked by hatred and politics, disrupts the Kid’s relatively peaceful life early on, and now he has nowhere to turn. Subsequently, a hurricane wipes out the makeshift homes of the inhabitants. The kid becomes a migrant, shuffling within the legal radius of permitted locales. At about this time, he meets the Professor, who the Kid calls “Haystack,” an obese sociologist at the local university who is the size and intellect of a mountain, an enigmatic man with a past of shady government work and espionage. He is conducting a study of homelessness and particularly the homeless, convicted sex offender population.

The Professor offers the Kid financial and practical assistance in exchange for a series of taped interviews. He aims to help the Kid gain control and understanding over his life, to empower him to move beyond his pedophilia. They form a partnership of sorts, but the Kid remains leery of the Professor and his agenda. The Professor’s opaque past, his admitted secrets and lies, marks him as an unreliable narrator. Or does it? Later, perilous developments radically alter their relationship, a fitting move on the author’s part that provides sharp contrasts and deeper characterization.

Sex offenders are the criminal group most collectivized into one category of “monsters.” Banks takes a monster and probes below the surface of reflexive response. There is no attempt to defend the Kid’s crime or apologize for it. We see a lot of the events through his eyes, and decide whether he is reliable or not.

He acquires an undernourished, skulking yellow dog and a crusty old grey parrot with clipped wings and a salty tongue. His relationship with these animals is rendered without a lick of sentimentality, but it bestows the most resonant and powerful feelings in the reader compared to anywhere else in the book. The care and feeding of dependents bring out the Kid’s protective instincts and help keep him focused.

The book is divided into five parts. Along the way, Banks dips into rhetorical digressions on sex, pornography, geography, and human nature, slowing down the momentum and disengaging the tension. These intervals are formal and stiff, although they are eventually braided into the story at large. However, despite these static flourishes, the story progresses with confidence and strength.

Most characters, whether stand-up citizens or sex offenders, have a moniker, which deliberately mechanizes them, but between the author and reader, humanization occurs between the pages. There’s Shyster, the pedophilic, disbarred lawyer and ex-Senator; Otis, the Rabbit, an elderly, disabled member of the tribe; and a Hemingway-esque character, the Writer, who incidentally resembles Banks himself; and others who personify their names.

Overall, the languid pace of the novel requires steadfast patience, but commitment to it has a fine payoff. Readers are rewarded with a thrilling denouement and a pensive but provocative ending. It inspires contemplation and dynamic discussion, and makes you think utterly outside the box.

Read my full review on http://bookreview.mostlyfiction.com/2... (mostlyfiction.com)
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Kathrina Wow, this sounds fascinating. I'm wondering how this would go over with my prison book group, a group largely made up of convicted sex offenders...too raw, or just right?


switterbug (Betsey) Kathrina-

Not too raw at all, I don't think. Great idea! There's a lot of humanity between the pages, and a lot to contemplate, no matter which side of the bars you are on. As long as you are all discussing along the way, that would be terrific.

BTW, a prison book group. Right on! I would love to do this some day. You rock!


Kathrina Actually, I'm just starting into it again. I did it a few years ago, but the prison librarian unexpectedly and suddenly died, and the group fell apart. It's back and we start this month with Clown Girl, kind of an odd choice. It's a great group, with some of the best discussions I've ever had -- lots of deep thinking going on -- but we have never discussed prison, sex crimes, or any topic relating to why they are there. Not sure if that's a risk I want to take...


switterbug (Betsey) Read it first and then I am sure you will be able to decide then whether it is a good choice or not. I am very curious as to what you would think.


Kathrina October?! Forever! I will watch for it.


message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

Just started it--barely scratched the surface--but I've never read a Banks novel that I didn't like. In fact, I love most of them. He's my favorite author.


switterbug (Betsey) Right on, William! I look forward to your final assessment.


message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

I'll be sure and share it!


message 10: by Jay (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jay Very nice review. I just finished the novel and need time to reflect on the experience. Your talked about the novel's "languid pace." I found it well paced.


switterbug (Betsey) Thank you, Jay! This is a book I will remember for a long time--it actually continues to stay on the front burner with me. Although the pace sometimes slowed down, in retrospect I appreciate it. It allowed the text to tunnel deep down in my grey matter. Some people like a whip-it pace, but this book would have felt wrong if it had been any faster. I have so much more patience with books than with life! LOL


message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

Banks is best read slowly. He gives the reader an awfully lot to digest. John Irving is the same.


TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez SBug, I didn't know you were a member here! I read all of your reviews and all of Roger B's on Amazon! You both are always so insightful.

I was going to skip this book, but since you praised it so highly, I think I'll read it. I usually like what you like and I've learned I can count on your taste. Thank you for the wonderful review.


message 14: by Drew (new)

Drew Just found out about this via an interview with Sergio de la Pava, might check it out.


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