New Book: Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
I was at the library last week adding to my winter vacation book pile:
And I found #138) Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin in the new books section. This book has been getting a lot of attention and landed on lots of “best of 2011” book lists. I knew that it is the story of a homeless sex offender. That Banks makes him sympathetic. And that Banks is a highly respected author who writes big, thoughtful tomes often with strong social justice themes. I own Cloudsplitter about John Brown, the abolitionist, but haven’t gotten around to reading it. And Lost Memory of Skin has a lizard on the cover (I love reptiles and amphibians) – so I figured I’d give it a try.
It’s the story of “the Kid” (we never know another name for him), his homeless, sex-offending neighbors in their shantytown under the freeway causeway bridge, and “the Professor” (I don’t think we know his real name either). The Kid’s story is revealed to us slowly, piece by piece. We know he has a six foot iguana, Izzy, that his mother brought him back from a trip to Mexico (Izzy was a little guy at the time). The Kid’s mother is benignly neglectful, at best, and criminally abusive, at times. He has, more or less, raised himself, decamping to the back yard shed and his tent as a young teenager. His mother resents feeding him and brings home a string of drugs and boyfriends, leaving the Kid on his own.
He has no friends, save for Izzy and “Rabbit” an elderly man in the homeless settlement. Never able to figure out how to connect to other people, despite trying, the Kid turns to pornography and a lot of masturbation, even for a teenage boy. Every time he makes an effort to engage with other people, he meets disaster. His mother is awful. His efforts to make friends with other soldiers in the military culminate in the purchase of 20 DVDs of his favorite porn actress to give to them only to get them confiscated in a surprise inspection and suffer discharge because any form of pornography distribution is a violation of military rules. When, at 21 and a virgin, he connects online to britney18, and despite learning that she is 14, goes to her house for a rendezvous carrying beer, condoms, and lubricant, he encounters her furious father and arrest.
After nine months in jail he is released on ten years of probation with an electronic ankle bracelet, a prohibition from going online or within 2500 feet of schools, playgrounds, or any place where children hang out, and permanent sex offender listing. Given that a 2500 foot circle of exclusion precludes him from living almost anywhere in the city except under the causeway or out in a remote area where the property owner only tolerates campers for a few days at a time, he chooses the causeway. He and Izzy join a large group of other homeless sex offenders, including, soon a former state senator. Early on in the book, the police make a show of breaking up the camp and attacking the inhabitants, and the Kid, who has a busboy job in a restaurant, leaves for a time. When he returns, a new character enters: the Professor, a sociology professor at a local college with an interest in homelessness.
The Professor is huge, tall and extremely obese. He never stops eating. The child of loving and deeply in-love parents who early on loved him through constant overfeeding, he has became estranged from his parents and embarked on a series of hazy episodes, including work for the CIA, FBI, and other, more secret, entities. He keeps these times separate from his current life as father, husband, and professor. When he hears of the raid, sensitive to the political machinations that caused it, he decides to start a research project on the camp and finds the Kid. After convincing the Kid to be a research subject, they begin a set of interviews and the Professor helps him with different challenges, including leaving the temporary camp (with sick dog and parrot in tow) and returning to the homeless camp which the Professor sets about organizing as a test of his theory that what the men lack is structure. This works for awhile, but a hurricane throws everything into confusion, including the Kid and the Professor, who end up sharing more confidences than expected. I will leave the plot there in order to leave out some critical details.
I very much liked this book. It isn’t the type of book that I’m usually drawn to, but the Kid is a very sympathetic character. Banks makes a good case that a socially inept, lonely 21 year old attempting a liason with a 14 year girl is, while illegal and abusive, insufficient to warrant complete societal shunning. Whether sex offenders can or cannot be rehabilitated (I wouldn’t be the one to risk a child’s future on this bet), in the United States we have made many of their lives nearly impossible with the sex offender registry and 2500 foot restrictions. There are few things worse than child abuse of any kind, but there’s a sea of difference between a 21 year old who has never kissed a girl resorting to connecting with a 14 year old than an adult abusing a pre-teen. Even as I write this, I’m thinking about all the questions that Banks raises with the book. Where is the line? If it had been a more truly predatory 21 year old and a more innocent 14 year old, would that be more heinous? Is a 45 year old and a 16 year old OK (maybe in some states?)? Definite food for thought.
I’ve also been reading and working with Susan Wise Bauer’s #140 The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. She provides guidance on how to read “great” books (or any book, really). I read the first chapters and then the section about reading a novel (with recommendations of about 10 or so classic novels that give exposure to the history of novels). Bauer provides guidelines for thinking about, taking notes on, and engaging with novels. It is very good and I’ll talk more about the rules in a future post, but meanwhile, she has helped me to apply different questions to my reading. Such as, what is the main argument of this book? Do you agree with it? Does the book take you through an emotional experience? How? Who are the key characters? What are their roles?
In applying some of these questions to Lost Memory I’ve thought about the Kid and the Professor. Who are they? What happened to them? The ending a purposely unclear – we aren’t completely sure what the Professor did or didn’t do. Was he a sex offender himself? In many ways, he and the Kid have a lot in common, but the Professor is not ostracized, in fact he has a lot of power. The Professor is asexual, but a compulsive eater. The Kid compulsively masturbates but has no other sexual experience. Neither has a lot of real social connection, but the Kid does connect to the other homeless. The Kid is essentially very sweet. He loves animals and is heart broken at their mistreatment. He risks personal harm to save others. While disconnected from people, he craves human relationship. The Professor can do good (he helps the Kid although at first this is primarily manipulative – he wants a good research subject) but it is less clear that he IS good.
One of the things Bauer asks us to ask a book and author is, do they focus more on environmental or psychological causes – in other words – do they believe in free will or “nature” (versus nurture). I’m not sure with regard to Lost Memory. Clearly, environment is huge – the Kid is restricted from a normal life by his mother and by society once he commits his crime. Unable to figure people out, he flounders and retreats to friendship with pets. But he also makes choices: to be basically good, to help others, to save neglected animals, to be honest with the Professor. And ultimately, he does gain from this. So, he has some ability to affect change, but it is also highly constrained. What is Banks saying with the book? Clearly that the implications of our sex offender policies can include impacts we may not like on people more sympathetic and worthy of our concern than we might think. I think he is also asking us to question what we know about people. Is the Professor a better person than the Kid? Not necessarily.
A good book – I’ll have to add Cloudsplitter to my list at #144.
Happy Reading! Ruby