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Lost Memory of Skin - Russell Banks 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