Lost Memory of Skin
By Russell Banks
(Blogger Note: This review was published in the February, 2012 edition of "LAMLight," the physician newsletter of the Lynchburg Academy of Medicine )
“Human identity is the most fragile thing that we have, and it's often only found in moments of truth.”
- Alan Rudolph
“Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”
- Mark Twain
Russell Banks has written a provocative new novel regarding a very contemporary problem: people ostracized by society and forced into a nomadic existence because of their status as registered sex offenders. In the first section of the book we are introduced to The Kid, a twenty two year old young man living under a freeway exit ramp in a fictional city which closely resembles the author’s home city of Miami, Florida. The Kid has experienced a very troubled childhood and adolescence living with his promiscuous single mother. He became addicted to internet pornography as a child and was discharged from the U.S. Army for distributing DVDs of his favorite adult film star to his fellow soldiers. The Kid lives under the ramp in a tent with his self-described “only friend”, a pet Iguana named Iggy (named for punk rocker “Iggy Pop”). He buses tables at a South Beach restaurant until he is fired for insubordination. He lives under the causeway with a vagabond group of similarly exiled loners, each a pariah. At this point in the story the reader is not sure what The Kid did to earn this status, but there is no doubt about the hopeless and dire situation in which this character exists.
In the second section of the book we meet The Professor. He is a sociologist and a genius with a photographic memory. He is doing research on the homeless and on the recidivism rate of sex offenders. The Professor has a theory regarding these societal refugees. He feels that if they can organize themselves into a social structure, they will be re-accepted into the mainstream of society. Just as The Professor and The Kid have begun to assemble this organizational structure their entire world literally comes down around them as a result of a police action. The city has decided that these folks living under the ramp hurt the tourist industry and they are forcibly removed from the area. The Kid relocates to a nearby island, finding refuge at a site which is a bar, a frequent movie set and possibly a source of narcotics. The Professor follow The Kid to this new location and starts to underwrite his expenses in return for The Kid’s willingness to help with The Professor’s his research. We learn more about The Professor: first and foremost he is morbidly obese with an obvious eating disorder. Banks describes The Professor attacking enormous amounts of food without any ability to stop. We learn that The Professor is married and the father of twins, but his gorging and increasing enormity causes discord in his personal life.
The story progresses with The Professor and The Kid learning more and more about each other. We learn that The Kid was arrested after conversing in an internet chat room with what he thought was a fourteen year old girl. He arranges a meeting, only to be met by undercover police. Throughout his internet chats The Kid lied about his military experience, describing exploits in Afghanistan including for a secret government agency and his paranoia that he will be killed because of “what he knows”. The Professor even hires The Kid to film a confession of sorts for his wife in the event that he is indeed killed.
The Kid eventually returns to the causeway to live until everyone’s life is literally turned upside down by a Category 3 Hurricane. The Kid then takes the money he received from The Professor and goes to live on a houseboat in the Everglades and The Professor indeed dies in a suspicious manner. The book concludes with The Kid living back under the freeway ramp, wondering about reality, truth and life:
“Maybe if he just acts like he has a third dimension whether he’s seen by others or not – whether he’s seen by practically everyone in the world on You Tube and is monitored by his parole officer on a computer screen with beeps from the GPS on his ankle or instead is invisible to the world, living underground in darkness beneath the Causeway and well out of sight from passersby on the highway – if he acts like a three-dimensional man then maybe, just maybe he’ll turn into one. Isn’t that how everyone does it? By acting?”
Lost Memory of Skin is a complicated novel with great depth. Russell Banks has tackled addiction issues in previous works (Affliction) and treats both The Kid’s porn problem and The Professor’s food obsessions with endearing empathy. These characters become likable and seem victim-like despite their unseemly behaviors. As I read this book, though, it seemed that the author was trying to make a statement about reality and identity in this modern world. The Kid became a different person on-line and The Professor revealed identities of which even his wife was unaware. The murkiness of the details of both character’s stories blurred the broad interface between what was real and what was not, much like modern communication, movies, television and, in particular, the internet does. Even at the book’s conclusion, the reader is not sure which of the stories were indeed truthful. This created confusion and an uneasiness, which I suspect is what the author was trying to achieve.