After a melodramatic and somewhat disappointing detour to the 1930s in his last novel, The Reserve, Russell Banks has returned with intensity to the territory he staked out for himself in novels like Continental Drift and Affliction—the gritty reality of America’s underclass.

Beneath a south Florida causeway, a small band of paroled sex offenders have been consigned to an abysmal existence, sentenced to live there at least 2,500 feet from any children. Among their number is a 22-year-old man known only as the Kid. Discharged from the Army, he’d been nabbed in a sex sting, and when he loses his job as a busboy in a luxury hotel he’s left with little but time to ponder his misery.

The Kid’s life changes when the Professor, a sociology professor at a local college, appears in the squatters’ camp to conduct what he calls field research on the lives of convicted sex offenders and the reasons for their homelessness. In a series of interviews, the Professor slowly peels away the layers of the Kid’s troubled past, revealing all the turns where his life could have taken a different path. Eventually, the Professor reveals his own long-buried secrets and as the subject becomes the researcher, the novel veers in a startling direction.

Where Banks excels, as he has in the best of his work, is in sculpting sympathetic protagonists out of the most humble materials. There are few moments of brightness in the Kid’s brief life, and yet it’s hard not to hope he’ll attain some small slice of redemption by the story’s end. The Professor’s research, too, seems as predatory as the shameful acts of his subjects, and yet in his relationship with the Kid he develops the capacity to display true empathy. 

Lost Memory of Skin is a dark, sobering novel, but like all accomplished social novelists, Russell Banks uses it to illuminate a reality that will always elude capture.

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