Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Skin," Deep

With Memory of Lost Skin, Russell Banks provokes his readers to confront the implications of an intensifying national taboo surrounding sexual deviance

The following review was posted earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network.

When a psychiatrist friend in our reading group recently suggested that our next book discussion focus on the topic of sexual deviance, my instinctive reaction was one of aversion. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. Is there?) I did recall, however, that the latest Russell Banks novel deals with that subject. I've long been a Banks fan -- his 1995 novel Rule of the Bone was a rich re-imagining of an unlikely interracial friendship spanning North and Latin America, and his 1998 novel Cloudsplitter helped me understand the 19th century abolitionist freedom-fighter/terrorist John Brown in a way no else ever had -- but again, the topic of sex offenders was not particularly appetizing. Still, I figured that if anyone could make that subject compelling, Banks could, and the group agreed to adopt it as our next title.

I took for granted that it was going to take a while to get into Memory of Lost Skin. But from the opening page, when its fearful young protagonist -- known only as the Kid -- goes into a public library in order to ascertain whether he could be found on an Internet site listing local sex offenders, I was riveted. Here as in his other fiction, Banks demonstrates a remarkable ability to make us care about people in situations we are unlikely to understand, much less sympathize with, were we to encounter them in real life. But I found myself with an instant attachment to this character in his unselfconscious affection for his pet iguana, the only living creature in his life with which he experiences anything resembling emotional reciprocity. Instinctively smart and yet profoundly ignorant, I was stunned by the intensity of my desire that this homeless, fallible human being get a second chance after a foolish mistake. And my anxiety that he would not.

The Kid, who never knew his father, grew up with a mother whose stance toward him was one of benign neglect (emphasis on the latter). Since she was largely concerned with a string of disposable sexual liaisons, the socially isolated Kid viewed online pornography as his primary window on the outside world. A stint in the army was cut short by a maladroit act of generosity, sending him back home again to South Florida. We eventually learn what he subsequently did with a minor that resulted in a three-month jail sentence. More punishing than the jail stint is his ten-year prohibition against living less than 2500 feet from any public setting in which there are children, which effectively makes it impossible to do much else than pitch a tent under a highway in a makeshift community of other convicts. We meet various members of this community, whose appeal and moral stature vary widely.

We also meet another mysterious character who, like the Kid, is known by the similarly enigmatic name of the Professor. A sociologist of immense girth and intellect, the Professor enters the Kid's life just after the young man experienced a series of setbacks involving his job and makeshift residence. But the Professor's motives are murky, something the Kid knows just as well as the reader. The omniscient narrator allows us to see more of the Professor's life than the Kid does, and we sense decency in his motives, even as we know that there's a lot of his story that's missing. Over the course of the tale we learn more (not everything, but more) about him. The Kid, meanwhile, finds himself ever more dependent on the Professor. There's irony in this, because the Professor helps the Kid adopt new pets for which he can exercise responsibility, and he aids the Kid in assuming a role of leadership among the sex offenders in their efforts to survive in the face of community hostility and poor living conditions. But there's another irony as well, because in the key plot twist of the novel, the Kid finds himself in a position to help the Professor, though he's not sure he should.

Like Rule of the Bone, Lost Memory of Skin -- the title has reptilian, sexual, and other connotations -- resonates with the spirit of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, whose name is invoked a number of times here.  In all three cases, we have an unlikely friendship between an older man and a younger one in a world that regards both with suspicion. But Lost Skin is a bit different than the others in that it's less a story of flight than a quest for its main characters to keep a home despite pasts that make this seemingly impossible. There is no territory for the Kid to light out for; as for the Professor, unseen walls are closing in. That's what makes their tale so gripping, and so sad.

In a more important sense, however, this novel really is consonant with Huck Finn. Banks, like Twain, believes that we are all born with varying forms of decency independent of the circumstances of our birth. At the same time, however, our notion of morality is shaped by those circumstances, which can lead us to tragically misguided notions of of right, wrong, and our capacity to know the truth. Yet the belief -- and we are, in the end, in the realm of faith -- that we can find a justifiable reality gives the novel a sense of earned hope. Not optimism, mind you, but hope.

I understand -- insofar as anyone who hasn't experienced sexual abuse can ever really understand -- the imperative to protect people from a real evil, even as I wonder about the costs of what appears to be an intensifying taboo (perhaps not coincidentally, our last taboo). I sometimes find myself wondering whether my appetite for reading is simply one more form of addiction, albeit one in which I am fortunate because my predilections don't afflict anyone beyond loved ones who may wish they had more of my undivided attention. But I experienced Lost Memory of Skin not as a fix for a bad habit, but rather an an experience that widened and deepened my understanding of the world. I'm grateful for the compassion of Russell Banks. And I'll try to keep an eye out for the Kid.