“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: LOST MEMORY OF SKIN by Russell Banks

Russell Banks’ 13th novel opens with a young man, a 22-year-old known simply as ‘the Kid’, entering a library and asking a librarian to enter his real name on an internet sex offenders list. When she does so, the Kid’s face pops up on the screen, which seems to satisfy some need the Kid has to be confirmed as a sex offender. This need to have his reality confirmed by other, external means is a recurring theme in the Kid’s story.
  The story then opens properly, informing us that as a convicted sex offender currently on parole, the Kid is not allowed to live within 2,500 feet of any place where young children are likely to congregate. This limits his options to three places in the city of Calusa (which appears to be Miami): a remote part of the airport; the swamp that backs onto the city; or under the Causeway that links the city of Calusa to a number of barrier islands along the coast.
  Throughout the novel, Banks draws parallels between the Kid and a number of classic outsider myths, particularly American mythology, such as Billy the Kid and the pirate William Kydde, and further draws explicit parallels between the Kid’s flight into the sanctuary of the Panzacola Swamp and that of the Seminole Indians, who fought the white settlers to a standstill and retained control of huge swathes of Florida’s mangrove swamps.
  Thus the Kid lives under the Causeway in a rudimentary commune with a number of other sex offenders, all male. These include Rabbit, Paco and the Greek, and a newcomer, formerly a lawyer, whom the group called Shyster. It’s a fragile society, and the reader is hardly surprised when the offenders’ haven under the Causeway is attacked in the middle of the night by a group of vigilante policemen, who roust the offenders out and banish them from their limbo-like existence, destroying their crude huts and tents, and shattering the facsimile of civilisation the men have built up over a number of years.
  Banks then introduces a second main character, the Professor. An unusually intelligent man, the Professor lectures at the local university on homelessness. He has always meant to converse with the homeless sex-offenders who live under the Causeway; when he hears the news that they have been rousted from their position, he goes to check it out. The Professor meets the Kid, and offers to help him financially if the Kid will agree to be interviewed about his particular predicament, and the factors that led him to become homeless. The Kid reluctantly agrees, and an odd relationship begins.
  Having chosen his subject matter, Russell Banks is in quite a bind at the beginning of this novel. He needs to make the Kid at least potentially sympathetic, or the reader will have little interest in reading on. And yet, expressing sympathy for a sex offender, and particularly one who targets children, is one of the last taboos of our culture.
  In order to combat this, Banks cites a number of examples of previously taboo topics and / or character types who were once outcasts in society, but have since been rehabilitated. The classic example is that of lepers, a group that is frequently mentioned in association with the Kid and his fellow sex offenders. In one example, Banks writes of the Kid reading the Bible in his tent:
The Kid has started reading the fifth chapter of Numbers and it gives him a sudden chill, makes him sit up in his sleeping bag and keep reading: And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath an issue, and whosoever is defiled by the dead: Both male and female shall ye put out, without the camp shall ye put them; that they defile not their camps, in the midst whereof I dwell …
  Not cool, the Kid thinks. Even lepers deserve a break and shouldn’t be abandoned and put under a bridge someplace outside the city like garbage just because they’re sick. That’s what hospitals are for … (pg 273)
  Are sex offenders our contemporary lepers, exiled from society for fear they might infect the rest of us with their disease? Are they entitled to hope that a cure might be found for their particular disease that might allow them to function in society at some point in the future?
  Earlier, Banks has written of the Professor’s intentions:
The Professor intends to cure the Kid of his paedophilia. Not with psychotherapy or drugs or more radical means like feeding him female hormones or chemical castration. He intends to cure the Kid by changing his social circumstances. By giving him power in the world. Autonomy. Putting his fate and thus his character in his own hands. He believes that one’s sexual identity is shaped by one’s self-perceived social identity, that paedophilia, rightly understood, is about not sex, but power. More precisely, it’s about one’s personal perception of one’s power. (pg 159)
  Taken in tandem, the Kid and the Professor make a convincing argument, within the context of the novel, for the fact that some sex offenders are very much the products of their culture. That is to say, they have received a rather negative, or non-existent, nurturing, and thus their sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, is nowhere as strongly pronounced as it should be. Or needs to be, if society is to function.
  The title of the novel, LOST MEMORY OF SKIN, is suggestive of the fact that an entire generation of men, especially, have grown up entirely desensitised to the reality of sex and physical touch, and are experiencing sex - the ultimate in emotional connection, in theory - at a remove, or second-hand, as it were.
  And if a generation’s reaction of one of its prime impulses has been so totally desensitised, what does that mean for the rest of its reactions towards society as a whole?
  There’s an interesting conversation between the Professor and his wife, Gloria, which begins on page 124 with Gloria warning her husband against getting too deeply involved with the Kid:
  You should be careful, hanging out with sex offenders [she says]. Especially homeless sex offenders. Don’t you find them … creepy? Scary? Some of them are rapists, I’ve heard. Child molesters.
  A page or so later, the Professor has this to say:
  These men are human beings, not chimpanzees or gorillas. They belong to the same species as we do. And we’re not hardwired to commit these acts. If, as it appears, the proportion of the male population who commit these acts has increased exponentially in recent years, and it’s not simply because of the criminalisation of the behaviour and a consequent increase in the reportage of these crimes, then there’s something in the wider culture itself that has changed in recent years, and these men are like the canary in the mine shaft, the first among us to respond to that change, as if their social and ethical immune systems, the controls over their behaviour, have been somehow damaged or compromised. And if we don’t identify the specific changes in our culture that are attacking our social and ethical immune systems, which we usually refer to as taboos, then before long we’ll all succumb. We’ll all become sex offenders, Gloria. Perhaps in a sense we already are. (pg 125, italics mine)
  Is Banks blaming the internet and the widespread dissemination of desensitising material? Or is the internet responding to a need in the culture, which seeks to be desensitised to its reality?
  Banks deserves credit for tackling a very difficult subject, and for doing so in a way that is not overbearing, dogmatic, nor prescriptive. Surprisingly, he can be comically playful with the issues he raises. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe the novel as a black comedy, but there are flashes of morbid wit throughout, which go a long way towards leavening the mood. One example comes close to the end, when the Kid is befriended by a freelance travel writer, called - almost inevitably - ‘the Writer’, who is penning a feature for a New York magazine (called ‘Outsider’) on the Panzacola Swamp. Once he hears about the Kid’s and the Professor’s story, the Kid asks if the Writer will write about the story:
Who’d want to read it? [responds the Writer]. Kiddie porn and child molesters, paedophiles and suicidal college professors? Jesus! Besides, I’m just a freelance travel writer, not some kind of investigative journalist or a novelist trying to depress people. I have to make a living. (pg 381)
  There are many other examples of a self-reflexive awareness. On a number of occasions, Banks has one of his characters remind another that what they’re dealing with is reality, rather than fantasy. For example, when the Kid interviews the Professor’s ‘confession’, and agrees to pass on the DVD to the Professor’s wife:
A deal is a deal [the Kid says]. It don’t actually matter to me what’s true about you and what isn’t. It ain’t like this is in a novel or a movie where the whole point is figuring out what’s true. (pg 300)
  Indeed, Banks is quite obviously playing post-modern games. When the Kid rents a houseboat to live on in the Panzacola Swamp, its name is the Dolores Driscoll - which is the same name of the bus driver who played a central part in the novel, THE SWEET HEREAFTER.
  All told, and even if it might have benefited from some judicious editing, I found LOST MEMORY OF SKIN to be a very satisfying novel, not least because Russell Banks is happy to raise any number of difficult questions and not feel the need to spoon-feed the reader easy questions, and for a finale that pulls the rug out from under the complacent reader.
  Both of the main characters, The Kid and The Professor, were sufficiently interesting in themselves and in tandem to make the narrative a compelling one, and The Kid’s story was something unique, offering a glimpse of a life on the underbelly of society that I had never come across before, while the Kid himself is a haunting creation, compared by the Professor to Huckleberry Finn, “long after he lit out for the Territory, grown older and as deep into the Territory as you can go.” - Declan Burke

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