Russell Banks claims in this interview linked above that when he sits on his terrace in Miami, he can see under a causeway to a little encampment of pariahs. He began to wonder about them, went down to visit, did some library research and came up with this plot to explain what was going on down there: first, a likeable but clueless young man with a pet iguana; second, a professor who knows everything except how to stop gobbling food; and third, a writer who helps to tie up the loose ends with a philosophical discussion. Since it is advertised as being about a pedophile, I had been a little worried about reading this book or even admitting that I was reading it, but believe me -- this book goes in at the shallow end of the pool. (The title is nice, but not very relevant.) Still, I’m grateful that someone presents an entering wedge that won’t make whatever middle class people are left go screaming out of the room. Banks is considered a serious and politically respectable writer.
This is not really about pedophiles or what happens to children. Believe me, this doesn’t even come close to the videos of Russian children living in sewers like packs of rats, doing sex acts for food money. No one can see them from any terrace, but try YouTube. The premise of the book is the double bind presented to sex offenders who must stay a certain distance from any place children might gather, which eliminates every habitation in the community. They have GPS monitors clamped onto their ankles. If they cut them off, they will have to leave the territory entirely. So they have to stay there under the causeway, but they can’t stay there; they would like to leave there, but they don’t have the resources to go. Prison begins to seem attractive.
Our Young Man, the “Kid,” the protagonist, has been ignored by his mother (WHAT father??), his teachers and classmates, his commanding officers in the army until they threw him out for a petty offense, and so on. The iguana is enormous, a kind of dragon watchdog except that he’s not warm to sleep with. The boy is compared to Huck Finn but Huck never had an electronic manacle on his ankle. The boy is both sustained and betrayed by technology: his computer both shows him as much porn as he can absorb and announces him a sex offender, though he’s a virgin.
The Professor, who shows up from above like a Deus ex Machina, is so fat that no one even thinks he has normal sex, though he did manage a wife and two children. He’s like a television character out of a legal crime series: “Cracker” maybe. The guy who figures it all out. So Banks is playing with us, this is true, but when this countervailing force is presented, what does that amount to? At the end he himself, The Writer, appears, walking onstage, like those Shakespearean characters who tie up all the loose ends after the action of the play has finished and the stage is littered with dead bodies.
The real subject is our incorrigible society (perhaps all societies) which insists on defining “us” a certain way and excluding all others who don’t fit that definition. The hope seems to be that they’ll simply disappear or a convenient natural disaster will wipe them out. (There’s a hurricane.) But they still hang on tenaciously, like bugs or rats. And yet the very characteristics that we blame them for (sex, predation, violence, poverty) are always right there in our own lives just under the surface.
If I had written this book, I would have done more with the Shyster, the lawyer “chomo” (child molester). The episode that comes closest to illustrating what I’m saying here is the one about the filming of some pre-adolescent children naked but for draperies, dancing innocently in billows of mist from a fog machine. Little Salomes pretending to be Isadora Duncan. The question the author throws out is whether this is porn for chomos or an advertisement for detergent. He’s pretty clear it’s the former, but you could fool a lot of people.
There’s a lot of geology and a certain amount of Darwin in this book. The iguana, shot by cops, is replaced by a grey parrot, partly because Banks wanted to set up a second classic echo besides Huck: “Treasure Island.” (There is no “Long Dong Silver,” however. Just an old man with a broken leg.) I kept thinking about the grey parrot (we all know how intelligent they are, thanks to the book about one) in terms of David Quammen’s hardly noticed sci-fi tale about a red parrot-like creature who is actually a very cranky alien and how critical the creature is of human arrangements. There is no actual sex act in “Lost Memory of Skin,” only references to them, usually by slang terms. Your vocabulary will be broadened, though one would have to be careful about where one used the words.
At the end the story began to ring true -- I’m talking about the sudden introduction of spies, undercover agents, informant rings and so on. All things secret tend to converge below. The death of the professor is left ambiguous but scary, as though to acknowledge that there is far more to all this than anyone realizes -- and of course there is. Human trafficking, prostitution, drugs, mafia -- it’s part of the international underculture most people hardly suspect, most cops overestimate, and the media industries love to romanticize. Other books and movies tell all about that stuff, but it’s not unrealistic for Banks to include it. The underculture is constantly fed by the people who get crowded out of the mainstream and have no other way to survive -- nor any reason to conform.
In fact, what Banks seems to understand is that after people have lived like that for a while, they are like the grey parrot whose wings have been broken and reset so it cannot fly. They will not leave their cage. Not even if they are brought out to shelters for the homeless or SRO hotels, which are only other cages anyway. Your mind becomes your cage. Maybe it already was.