Bleak story has far-reaching implications
Russell Banks knows how to hook the reader’s interest. In the opening pages of Lost Memory of Skin, the book’s protagonist (known only as “The Kid”) enters the public library in Calusa (Miami) and asks the woman at the desk if she would help him find some information. She agrees and he asks if it is true that people who are called “sexual deviants” are on the Internet program along with their photo and their addresses.
The librarian asks for the address he wishes to check. She then asks for the apartment number and “The Kid” finds himself staring at his own face on the monitor. Yes, it is true! He is defined as a sexual deviant and a pedophile. The Kid apologizes, noting that he is probably breaking the law by being in a library, and runs.
So begins the story of a homeless 22-year-old man who lives under a bridge (causeway) in a kind of village of the damned. These are the outcasts of Miami, a growing colony of people deemed degenerate criminals and forbidden to live within 2,500 feet of a school or any area containing large numbers of children. Since the city is compact and filled with schools, parks and swimming pools, there is very little real estate available for these wretched souls with criminal records and electronic “tracking” GPS bracelets on their ankles that must to be charged every 48 hours (otherwise the law enforcement authorities come looking for them).
Even among this bizarre community, The Kid stands out because he has a six-foot pet iguana named Iggie. Ah, but not for long. Iggie is killed in one of the occasional raids carried out by irate citizens who trash the plywood and plastic shelters and hospitalize a few “freaks.” The Kid wryly notes that every time there is an election, the raids start. Within a week, most of the “social outcasts” return and begin rebuilding the shacks and lean-to shelters. Predictably, in a few months, a tropical storm blows the shelters away along with a few luckless inhabitants who are drowned in the ocean.
It is a daunting job to write a novel about a protagonist who is a pedophile, yet as The Kid gains our sympathy. Each time that he bounces back, he gives a running commentary about what he has learned from his experience and about God, damnation and sex. He is a plucky little guy and wryly confesses that his troubles are his own fault. The details about how he came to be convicted of attempting to have sex with a 14-year-old that he befriended on a “chat room” (plus being kicked out of the Army for distributing pornography) is both tragic and comical. Despite the “worldly” implications of his criminal record, the Kid has never had a girlfriend and is still a virgin. It is easier to become a sexual degenerate that you might think!
Born to a “party girl” who is unable to identify tThe Kid’s father, the Kid lives an unsupervised existence. His only friend is the pet iguana that his mother gave him after one of her “week-long vacations” with her friends (she leaves her son to fend for himself). Being essentially a shy boy and a poor student (he has never read a book), The Kid spends countless hours alone in his room watching porn channels. His mother feeds and clothes him, but she is too distracted by her obsession with club hopping and drinking (and her constant search for “cute guys”) to provide The Kid with any sort of guidance or affection.
At this point, a second character enters the Kid’s life. He is known as “The Professor” — an immense, bearded sociology professor who becomes interested in The Kid’s background. The Professor wants to know what factors have shaped The Kid’s fate. After offering to pay the suspicious young man for a series of interviews, the Professor and the Kid form an awkward alliance. The Kid remains skeptical and suspicious of the Professor’s motives, but he begins to talks freely about his past and it becomes increasingly evident that the interviews are giving him an insight into his own life. In effect, The Kid gradually develops a newfound self-confidence and even attempts to develop a structured community composed of “the bridge people.”
With advice from the Professor, The Kid develops committees that enforce rules regarding safety, sanitation and food collection (dumpster diving). Before long, social workers and city law enforcement people develop a cautious relationship with the “bridge people” that acknowledges their ability to government themselves.
However, all of these positive developments are temporary. It becomes evident that the Professor is not what he seems. There is something basically sinister about the great behemoth of a man who eats constantly in order to sustain his huge body. It is possible that he is manipulating The Kid and has “a hidden agenda.” We learn that he is married and has two children, but his domestic life is veiled in secrecy, and his wife (who turns out to be the librarian that The Kid consulted in the beginning of this novel) becomes increasingly unhappy with her husband’s secretive life. Where does he go? Why will he not talk about his past?
At times, the Professor hints at a dark past in which he worked for covert organizations with highly questionable motives. The Professor says that his life is now “at risk.” Is this true? The Kid comes to feel that The Professor is part of the worst aspects of pornography rackets that operate on the internet.
When the Professor tells The Kid that he (The Professor} will soon be murdered, but his death will be treated as a suicide, the Kid finds himself trapped into delivering a filmed interview to the Professor’s wife. What, then, is the truth? Using the money that The Professor gave him, The Kid makes a bid for freedom and escapes into an immense swamp that is part of Florida’s National Park.
Accompanied by an aging parrot that squawks “Yoo, hoo, hoo and a barrel of rum” and a brutalized dog named Annie, feeling a bit like Tom Sawyer (the Professor told him about Tom), The Kid rents a houseboat and ventures deep into the swamp. Within a few days he is bored, sick of eating fish and returns to the boat rental office to discover that agent already knows that he is a “pedophile” with an ankle monitor. What next? Should he go back to the camp under the bridge?
Despite the bleak nature of The Kid’s existence, I feel that this is a remarkable novel with some far-reaching implications. Russel Banks is not content to merely explore The Kid’s tragic entrapment by forces that he cannot resist; the title, Lost Memory of Skin, is significant. This novel is about the consequences of substituting the “digital” for the “real.” In other words, it is about replacing human contact with an artificial substitute. A bit of additional research reveals that the “bridge people” are not a product of a writer’s imagination. They are actually live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway outside Miami.