Lost Memory of Skin
It's not everyday a critically acclaimed and popular novel covers the subject matter in Russell Banks' latest book Lost Memory of Skin. The protagonist is simply referred to as 'The Kid' – a convicted sex offender released from prison with a tracking device attached to his ankle. This device will monitor his movements for a ten year parole period, and should he venture to within 2500ft of a school or a playground, or any place where children congregate, he will be busted back to jail. Furthermore, sex offenders' private details and criminal records are readily available on the Internet for inspection by prospective employers, thus rendering it near impossible for them to obtain employment in any position other than the most menial. Even then they are open to exploitation by their employers who can dismiss the offenders in a trice with no come back.
As Banks points out repeatedly throughout the narrative, in any urban area it is practically impossible not to be within 2500ft of such prohibited locations. The novel is situated in a fictional south Florida city by the coast called Calousa with merely three locations not inside this invisible Venn Diagram with 2500ft circumference circles: The area underneath a high-rise motorway called 'The Causeway', the airport and the swamp. The airport is equally verboten due to the possibility of vagrancy arrest, and thus The Kid is compelled to inhabit one of the other two.
Thus a menagerie of offenders live under 'The Causeway' in makeshift shelters and tents whilst keeping a healthy distance from one another. Banks anonymises all the main characters in the book with the use of nicknames. This is signposting the life of the offender – their identity is stripped to prevent identification and reprisals, and the unwritten camp rule discourages any inhabitant from asking any questions of one another which may lead to identification.
The Kid is befriended by a morbidly obese middle-aged college lecturer known as 'The Professor' who purports to be undertaking a study in homelessness amongst sex offenders, and thus begins an uneasy friendship. The Kid, lacking both the academic intelligence and verbal dexterity of The Professor, is fearful of his intentions. However, it would appear The Professor has significant problems of his own, and The Kid could become a useful pawn in The Professor's intrigue.
Banks should be applauded for tackling an awkward subject, although he is guilty of soft-pedalling. The Kid's crime of attempting to procure an underage girl he met online in a chatroom wouldn't in reality result in a conviction due to the entrapment tactics adopted by the police. Banks wanted a low tariff crime / misdemeanour to elicit reader sympathy but needed something with a jail sentence and a lengthy parole for the narrative arc to work, and ended up with a clumsy contrivance.
This is however a novel not just about the injustices of the US legal system. The second part of the book, as the life of The Professor becomes foregrounded, is more adjacent to the cold war spy genre. The book gathers momentum with life changing consequences for the players...
Most potential purchasers of this book will probably be deterred from buying due to the unpalatable nature of the subject matter. This would be a great shame – not only is Banks an extraordinarily talented writer who can elicit empathy, but he can also construct riveting story lines that force the page to be turned.