The late John Updike once opined that we are all “trapped in solitary confinement inside our own skins.”
We can’t ever really know what someone else is feeling, no matter how hard we try or how desperately she or he wants us to. Our unique souls are stuffed in our bodies like runty sophomores shoved into school lockers by a bunch of senior bullies, and while we can pound and scream our heads off, nobody’s going to hear. Especially not if it’s after school has let out.
And in life, it’s always after school has let out.
The new novel by Russell Banks, “Lost Memory of Skin” (Ecco), is about identity, isolation and iguanas. It explores some very large and grandiose themes but also functions as a compelling story, the kind that draws you in and makes you care about the characters, even as you realize that you don’t have the slightest clue about why they behave as they do.
The Kid — we don’t know his real name and ultimately it doesn’t seem to matter, so thoroughly does he disappear into the label — lives under a causeway in Florida, with only a pet iguana to call his own. The Kid is a piece of flotsam mired amid other misfits who have ended up here, a low spot in the world’s drain.
The place is “a settlement of men, grim and minimal and squalid but an extension of the city nonetheless as if the city had deliberately colonized this dark corner of itself with its outcasts.”
This is the Kid’s home because he is a convicted sex offender.
And sex offenders are “pariahs of the most extreme sort, American untouchables, a caste of men ranked far below the merely alcoholic, addicted or deranged homeless,” an observer notes. “They were men beyond redemption, care or cure, both despicable and impossible to remove and thus by most people simply wished out of existence.”
The Kid’s story is drearily familiar. He flirted with a stranger online and set up a date, despite her revelation that she was only 14.
He was caught and prosecuted. Now he can’t catch a break because “no one will believe he’s innocent of anything. Even of just being alive. He’s guilty of that, too. Being alive.”
The law requires him to keep away from locations where kids might be present, and that cuts down on a lot of potential real estate. That — and the fact that he’s pretty much broke and unemployable.
Enter the Professor. This bearded, obese, self-absorbed and mysterious academic visits the ragtag community under the causeway and is immediately drawn to the Kid. The Professor is the observer quoted above, the one who coined “American untouchables.”
He has his own dirty little secrets, but has managed to stuff them behind a bland wall of scholarly objectivity.
“This could turn into a long-term project,” the Professor muses upon first meeting the Kid, “and could eventually produce important data and proposals for dealing with both sexual offenders and the problem of homelessness.”
Their destinies intertwine in spectacular and unpredictable — and frankly implausible — ways, but Banks, despite his reputation as a hard-nosed realist bent on giving us a straightforward and unvarnished portrait of life, is really not concerned overmuch with realism here. Or perhaps he’s concerned with an offshoot of magical realism.
Because “Lost Memory of Skin” is more like an inside-out fairy tale than a documentary, more of a fable than a sociological report about the plight of homeless sex offenders. Unlike Banks’ two best novels, the epic “Cloudsplitter” (1998), his brilliant retelling of the John Brown story, and “Affliction” (1989), a taut family saga about vengeance and culpability, “Lost Memory of Skin” feels — even given its grim subject matter — looser, and it seems less of a moral lesson than a haunting yarn.
The novel includes some of the loveliest and most vivid descriptions of the natural world that Banks has ever written, descriptions made all the more striking by their juxtaposition with the tattered lives of the Kid and his posse beneath the causeway:
“It’s dusk, and a half moon has risen in the southwest and hangs like a silver locket over the Bay. An offshore wind riffles the palms and palmettos, flips the leaves of the live oaks onto their gray backsides and blows the stink of the sewage treatment plant away from Anaconda Key …"
There is also a harrowing scene of an onrushing hurricane through which the Professor drives. A large hunk of the book takes place on a houseboat in a large swamp.
“Lost Memory of Skin” is too long, and Banks lets too many questions just hang there; frustration lurks for readers who decide to make this journey.
But for all of its flaws, it is also one of those rare, strange, category-defying fictions that grabs hold of you in the same way that the iguana, early in the story, sinks its teeth into the tender flesh of the Kid’s hand. It’s hard to shake it off.
And even when you do, it leaves a mark.