Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Russell Banks’s latest novel follows a character simply known as the Kid, a sex offender living under a causeway in Calusa, Florida. It’s immediately made clear that the Kid is not a dangerous, to-catch-a-predator type of offender… in fact, it’s revealed he’s a virgin. Even before his arrest, he’s depicted as an outsider and a simpleton- the sort of poor schmo only the most cold-hearted reader could fail to feel sorry for. The other main character is another outsider known as the Professor, an eccentric, obese genius who happens to be studying homeless sex offenders. The dialogue between these two is brilliant- I found them both highly endearing and, at times, very funny. There are all sorts of weird, wonderful bits written into their story: the swamp, the conspiracy, their interactions with other characters. I hate writing, ‘I laughed! I cried!’ but it’s true- I laughed at some of the Kid’s irreverence and I blubbered up when the police raided the camp. The ending is not a particularly happy one but I found it strangely hopeful.

Calusa is fictional but it is based on Miami where the Julia Tuttle Causeway became an infamous sex offender encampment. Offenders on parole had to choose a place of residence 2,500 feet away from schools and parks which forced them under the causeway. Lost Memory of Skin is thoughtfully written and really struck a chord with me because one of my family members is a sex offender (sorry, I know that’s a little TMI for a public diary). It’s a sore subject for my family and something I’m still struggling to understand. The person I’m referring to is not as innocent as the Kid but he’s also not a sociopath ‘chomo’ like some of the other Calusa characters. Obviously, I don’t condone any convict’s wrongdoings but I wish these distinctions were made more often.

Here’s a sneaky photo I snapped of the author answering questions at my library. A cool teacher introduced me to Russell Banks when I was 14. They recommended Rule of the Bone which I literally lost sleep on, staying up all night to finish. It’s one of the first contemporary books I read and loved. Banks remains one of my favorite living writers and I will always look forward to his future work.

4 thoughts on “Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

  1. I enjoyed the book very much. It was my first exposure to Banks. I learned a lot about structure and technique from reading the book. I found his active, present tense style very refreshing and it helped move the process of reading along.

    In the early chapters, I loved some of his descriptive language at the beginning and end of chapters. That poetic voice gave life to the sense of place and helped create an atmosphere for the story to take place in.

    I’m an emerging fiction writer (I hope!) and feel like Banks opened a lot of new ideas about the craft to me. After discovering Saul Bellow earlier this year, 2011 has been a great literary year for me.

    • Agreed, Banks has a real gift for creating an atmosphere and drawing the reader into his characters’ world. I think he’s a smart and elegant writer, but also really good at flavoring dialogue with colloquialisms- in this book specifically, I was pretty impressed with the language of the men living under the causeway.

      I highly recommend reading more Russell Banks when you get the chance. As you can tell, I’m a big fan. :) Good luck with your writing!

  2. Thanks for the reccommendation, this sounds brilliant. Challenging, but intriguing. And thank you for your honesty, as well. That must be a very difficult thing to come to terms with, and I can only imagine the tension it has caused in your family – hell, mine have stopped speaking to each other over far more trivial events! I have no experience of these things, but I can appreciate that there are many different kinds of sexual offences, and as you say, although you can never condone a criminal act, it does not make the offender an unforgiveable or irredeemable person. Damn, you blog is so consistently thought-provoking, it’s such a breath of fresh air!

    • It’s such a loaded subject and, yeah, an awkward, sad one for my family. This book is amazing because it’s first a great story but also raises a lot of questions. Lemme know what you think if you read it. :)

      Also, thanks so much for your kind words. I love reading your blog too- your love of Bath, tea, and baked goods is really infectious!

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