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Darkness visible

A sex offender, a child, a savior. And a twisted journey that defies expectation

(Gus Wezerek/Globe Staff)
By Meredith Maran
September 25, 2011

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Russell Banks is a Big Male Writer. He writes books in the BMW tradition, with the confident bluster of Hemingway, the blistering currency of Ellis and McInerny, the genre-busting antistructures of Mailer and Kerouac. He was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and two of his novels were made into movies (“The Affliction’’ and “The Sweet Hereafter,’’ both in 1997), and his work has been translated into 20 languages, and he’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. At 71, he’s still at it.

Confession: I lean away from books by BMWs. If I want a walk on the literary wild side, I look to Jennifer Egan, or Toni Morrison, or Mary Karr. Why? Because I often find that BMWs’ experimental fiction is more experimental than engrossing, more “Look what I can do’’ than “Look what we humans all do, whether we mean to or not.’’

So I was surprised to fall into Banks’ “Lost Memory of Skin’’ like a cold pond on a hot day. I know, I know: I’m late to the party, but the guy can write. Pratesi sheets really do feel better than Kmart’s, a $50-dollar-an-hour carpenter really does do better work than a $20-an-hour handyperson, and Russell Banks really does know how to pull his readers into a dark, dark world only to deliver us into the light.

Here, Banks’ protagonist is the Kid, a young, homeless, registered sex offender who lives in a tent encampment under a Florida bridge, with only his pet iguana and a dozen free-range dumpster-dived eggs to his name. (Or rather, to his pseudonym: a convicted sex offender’s greatest liability, we learn, is his true identity). The Kid never knew his father; his mother is missing the motherhood gene, and an Internet chat gone wrong earned him a stint in jail, an electronic ankle bracelet, and a ban on living within 2,500 feet of a child. Cheerful enough for you? Just wait. Over the course of the book, the Kid gets fired, and then the encampment is busted up, first by the cops, who kill his beloved iguana in the process, and then by a hurricane, leaving the Kid with even less of the nothing he had.

The novel turns on the one seemingly good thing that happens to the Kid. (Operative word: seemingly. More on this in a minute.) An obese and strange sociology professor stumbles into the encampment looking for an interview subject for his research on homeless registered sex offenders. The Professor takes a shine to the Kid. The Kid thinks the Professor is God. “The white light splashes against the sides and roof of the tent and bathes the Kid all over. It probably is God . . . He must’ve decided that because the Kid has been reading the Bible now is the right moment to confront him with the cold irrefutable fact that the Kid is evil and He’s come down from heaven . . . [to] reveal the nature of his punishment.’’

The Kid discovers soon enough that the Professor is no God. And the reader, likely accustomed to more predictable fare, leaps to characterological conclusions, only to discover that neither the Professor nor the Kid is what or whom he seems to be. An older, respected guy who takes in a younger, vulnerable guy must either be a Samaritan or a pedophile, right? If you had to choose between a professor and a homeless kid as likelier to be an addict who has long since ripped up his copy of the social contract and has a secret in his past that shaped his psyche and his circumstance, you’d choose the kid. Right?

Wrong. If this novel had a subtitle, it would be “Abandon your assumptions, all ye who enter here.’’ Just when it seems clear that the Professor’s interest in the Kid is sexually predatory, Banks tells us, “The Professor intends to cure the Kid of his pedophilia.’’ Just when we’re convinced that the Professor has managed to penetrate the Kid’s Fort Knox-grade firewall of self-protectiveness; that the Kid has surrendered to the Professor’s relentless, seductive nurturance, we learn that, “The Kid has decided to embellish his story a little here and there, make it more interesting to the Professor so he’ll think he’s converting the Kid from being a sex offender into a regular law-abiding citizen with a normal sex life.’’

With its shifting points of view, half-page-long sentences, introduction and abandonment of various storytelling devices - not to mention provocative subject matter and marginally despicable characters - “Lost Memory of Skin’’ is a novel unlikely to have seen the light of day if its author were a woman, or even a Lesser Male Writer. Publishers are more risk-averse than ever these days, eager to bet their failing fortunes on predictably profitable pabulum. Having built a career, successful by any measure, on complex, intelligent, disturbing tales of moral ambiguity, Russell Banks has cleared a path through the underbrush. Writers and readers can only hope that this path will someday be equally accessible to all.

Meredith Maran is the author, most recently, of “My Lie.’’ Her first novel, “A Theory of Small Earthquakes,’’ will be published by Counterpoint in February 2012. She can be reached at meredith@meredithmaran.com.

LOST MEMORY OF SKIN By Russell Banks

Ecco, 416 pp., $25.99