Lost Memory of Skin is the first book I have read by acclaimed author Russell Banks, my only previous experience of his work being the film adaptation of The Sweet Hereafter (which I loved). Lost Memory of Skin is, in some respects, a strange book and one that I think is may be not the best introduction to his work.
At 22, the Kid has been ‘shit-canned’ from the Army, abandoned by his mother, has never had a girlfriend or meaningful relationship and is homeless – living in a camp underneath a concrete offramp in Calusa City, Florida.
These are not the worst of the Kid’s problems, chief of which is the fact that he is a convicted Sex Offender, required to wear a monitoring ankle bracelet for ten years and unable to live within 2,500 of a anywhere where children congregate, hence his homelessness.
It is a brave move to make your main protagonist a convicted sex offender, although Banks eases concern somewhat by making the Kid’s crime one of stupidity and circumstance rather than intent. A disaffected youth, ignored by his mother and with only a pet Iguana for company, the Kid became addicted to porn and has developed a passivity and lack of connection that is unsettling. Living amid a cast of homeless misfits, he tries to keep his head down and get through each day as best he can.
Two events cause the Kid to face his crimes and explore the life choices that have brought him to under the Causeway. The first is a police raid on the camp, in an attempt to clear up the city and the second is the appearance of the Professor, who wants to interview the Kid for his research on sex offenders and homelessness. However, the Professor is harbouring his own secrets and the lines between truth and lies become even more blurred.
Secrets and lies, they eat your insides until all you have left is a hard thin skin that covers you like the shell of one of those eggs you poke a little hole in and draw out its eggy contents before you dye it for Easter.
Lost Memory of Skin reads like a book of two halves, neither of which are overly successful. The Kid’s backstory is drip fed to the reader, and while Banks does not go so far as to ask us to sympathise with him, he does raise interesting questions about the nature of rehabilitation versus punishment. Just over half way through, the book veers in direction with the focus moving to the Professor and the tone and pace changing considerably. Is the Professor who he has said he is and are his motives to be trusted? What is it in his past that he is as keen to hide as the Kid is?
There are many themes floating about here and I wish that Banks had focused on one in particular. At times the prose, while attractive, takes on the air of a polemic as Banks explores exile, rehabilitation, identity, truth and the numbing nature of the Internet and online pornography in particular.
All the characters in Lost Memory of Skin are hiding their true selves in some way – as denoted by the lack of real names given to any of the characters. The Kid’s inability to bond with anyone rather than animals is a heartbreaking symptom of his neglected childhood and his dependence on the internet to give him some kind of connection with the outside world.
That’s why his hands were trembling as he lighted another cigarette. He was about to bump up against and break through an invisible membrane between the perfectly controlled world locked inside his head and the endlessly overflowing unpredictable, dangerous world outside.
Plot-wise, there are several great set pieces here – the police raid on the camp, a hurricane and a potential suicide, but there is also a lot of talking and a lot of repetition that bogs the narrative down and slows the pace. The introduction of the Writer at the end, feels more like a plot device than a well-rounded character, brought on to give the Kid his moment of clarity and a path forward. Due to the Kid’s passivity and lack of curiosity, this epiphany lacks a certain depth.
Banks is an effective prose stylist, but this book just didn’t come together for me. I do have a few other of his books in the 746 and won’t be put off reading them, but am, yet unconvinced.
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