One way to judge the morality of a society is to look at how it treats its prisoners. Another is to look at how it treats its children. Russell Banks examines both in his new novel, Lost Memory of Skin (Ecco, 416 pages, $25.99). In this disturbing, intelligent, but ultimately misshapen book, Mr. Banks forces readers to enter into the mind of a convicted sex offender. This turns out to be not as sordid as it sounds, because the sex offender in question is something of an innocent. In fact, he’s a virgin. His crime is soliciting a minor for sex via the Internet, but as details of the encounter are revealed, it is difficult to find much malice in his intent. Mostly, it seems to be a crime committed out of loneliness.
Known only as “the Kid,” the young man at the center of Mr. Banks’s 17th novel lives in a tent beneath a south Florida causeway, along with dozens of other sex offenders on parole. The Kid is forced into this strange no-man’s land because he must reside at least 2,500 feet away from anywhere children regularly gather. The rules of geometry make this real-life law stricter than it at first seems. As the Kid explains it, convicted sex offenders must: “live outside a closed circle of 9.25 million square feet. Since every school, playground, or video arcade lies at the center of such a circle, and nearly all the circles partially overlap and often extend well beyond the others, when you step clear of one 9.25-million-square-foot forbidden zone, you immediately step into another.”
Cheating is not an option, since each offender is tagged with a G.P.S. device that tracks movement. Given these parameters, many residents break parole in order to return to the relative ease of prison life. But the Kid values his freedom—and this is one of his many sympathetic characteristics—and toughs it out on the causeway.
At 22, the Kid is one of the causeway’s youngest inhabitants. His nickname refers to his youth and his small stature, as well as his quiet, childish demeanor. He’s a high school graduate, but just barely, and accustomed to teachers and other authority figures treating him as if he were “borderline retarded.” He’s ex-military, having been discharged for distributing pornography. His closest friend is a six-foot pet iguana. The iguana, once a small lizard that the Kid could hold in the palm of his hand, was a gift from his mother, smuggled illegally from Mexico. It’s a poor gift for a child, but by no means the worst example of his mother’s parenting. As the details of the Kid’s past unfold, it’s clear that many of his problems can be traced to his mother’s neglect—that, and the amount of pornography he consumed as a teenager.
The Kid works as a busboy, which is the perfect job for someone accustomed to a life of invisibility. But he has a sarcastic sense of humor and a stray remark causes him to lose his position. Around the same time, the causeway is subject to a police raid, and the Kid’s pet iguana is killed. It’s at this low point that he meets the Professor, a sociologist who is interested in homeless communities as well as “the legal apparatus designed to deal with sexual offenders.” In the Professor’s view, the rise in pedophilia is the natural outcome of a culture that commodifies and eroticizes children. More radically, the Professor sees sex offenders as victims. He singles out the Kid as his ideal subject, and begins interviewing him about his life and the events that led to his arrest and homelessness. The Kid, at first suspicious of the Professor, gradually warms to his attention and opens up to him.
Until the Professor appears, the novel is filtered entirely through the Kid’s point of view, so it’s a relief, at first, to see the world—and the Kid—through the Professor’s considerably more sophisticated eyes. But the Professor is not exactly a reliable narrator. Although he’s respected in his field and married with children, he’s something of a loner. Two things keep him from fitting into normal society: his formidable intelligence and his morbid obesity. In some ways, he’s like the overfed, misanthropic genius at the center of Ian McEwan’s most recent novel, Solar. Both characters are hyperarticulate academics crusading against the destructive effects of unchecked capitalism. But where the girth of Mr. McEwan’s academic is played for laughs, as evidence of society’s helpless greed, Mr. Banks’s professor is portrayed, more darkly, as a man disembodied. Estranged from his family, the Professor keeps his past a secret from everyone, and his motivations for studying child pornography are never entirely clear. He’s a master of self-deception, “a man whose life and mind are carefully compartmentalized, methodically divided into boxes that rarely share a single side.”
The Professor doesn’t buy into the disease model of pedophilia and instead believes that the Kid and other sex offenders can be cured if they are “empowered.” To that end, he begins to help the Kid out, buying him food and supplies, and encouraging him to organize the causeway into a real community, where inhabitants share responsibilities and look out for one another. The Kid is suspicious of the Professor’s generosity, and skeptical of his plan, but at the same time, the Kid has become more empathetic as a result of his long conversations with the Professor. For the first time, the Kid finds himself wondering about the other sex offenders who live beneath the causeway and wanting to know their stories. His curiosity extends to the Professor, but the Professor remains mysterious. However, events soon conspire in such a way that he is forced to reveal himself to the Kid and, eventually, to enlist his help.
The novel becomes messy and, in some places, improbable, as the Professor’s and the Kid’s stories converge. In the second half of the book, Mr. Banks brings in a variety of new elements to keep the plot moving along, including a hurricane, a murder and a freelance journalist. Things start to feel clunky in the novel’s final chapters, when the journalist (referred to, annoyingly, as “the Writer”) engages the Kid in a question-and-answer session that is more or less a means of delivering the novel’s resolution. Part of the problem is that Lost Memory of Skin is narrated in the present tense, so gesturing toward the future is difficult. Another limitation is that the Kid is not the most introspective of characters and needs someone to draw him out. Left to his own devices, his thoughts flicker between pornographic images and strategies for survival.
Still, Mr. Banks does a remarkable job of charting the Kid’s growth. At the beginning of the novel, he is deserving of his nickname. His only goals in life are to stay out of prison and to feed his overgrown iguana. He identity is so completely defined by his shame that he goes to a public library and asks the librarian to show him an online listing of local sex offenders, so that he can see a photograph of his own mug shot. That’s his only way of understanding his place in the world: by looking at a picture on the Internet.
But by the end of the novel, the Kid “wonders for the first time if there is a way for him to give that two-dimensional image on the screen a third dimension and become wholly alive.” He doesn’t know how to go about this, but he suspects that “it has to be done mentally from the inside out.” It’s a small revelation, but it represents the beginning of his inner life. Although he is still under parole, and will be for many more years, he has achieved a kind of freedom of spirit. When Mr. Banks refers to the Kid as a hero in the novel’s final pages, the label seems right.