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Russell Banks ‘Lost Memory of Skin’ is a late-career masterpiece.

September 26, 2011

Some critics — the late Thomas Disch, for one — believe that writers are like physicists, and do their best work young. At 71, Russell Banks is a repudiation to that notion.

For a list of upcoming activities at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, visit the center’s website. And mark your calendar: This year’s Miami Book Fair International runs Nov. 13-20.

Lost Memory of Skin, his latest novel, is not just any masterpiece, not some brilliantly constructed historical novel recalling life in 1995 or 1955 or 1905 or whatever. It’s a novel set yesterday, or maybe earlier this morning, with important things to say about pornography and addiction and intimacy and the human cost of digital technology.

Banks, who officially launches the novel tonight with a reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables, has been associated with Miami since he left New England at the age of 18. His breakout novel, Continental Drift (1985), is set largely here.

At first Lost Memory of Skin seems like a latter-day reprise of the themes and even the action of Continental Drift, a story of a well-meaning working class fellow caught in a downward spiral of hard luck and poor decisions. But the new novel is much more than that, going off in surprising directions at almost every turn.

At the center of the story is The Kid, a 22-year-old registered sex offender living under a causeway in the city of Calussa, a close analogue of Miami. A city law mandating a 2,500-foot zone around any place frequented by children — schools, churches, playgrounds — means the only place in the county sex offenders can legally reside is the causeway, the airport, and the swamp at the western edge of the urban sprawl.

So the Kid — who, despite his sex-offender status, is also a virgin — lives under the bridge with a makeshift colony of other sex offenders. Then the first big surprise in this novel arrives — a tall, morbidly obese sociologist called the Professor comes to study the homeless men on the causeway and takes a particular interest in the Kid.

Does the Professor simply want to exploit the Kid for his research? Or has he taken a more human interest? Or does he harbor darker, more sinister designs?

These two characters, the Kid and the Professor, are two of the great creations of recent American literature. Almost real, like Calussa, they shimmer with a hint of the uncanny that suggests in this otherwise realistic story anything can happen.

While reviewers have been awed by Banks’ achievement with The Lost Memory of Skin none have liked it quite as much as I do –a masterpiece, I say!

Janet Maslin, writing in The New York Times, calls it “a major new work…destined to be a canonical novel of its time.” But she also warns that it has “problems,” one of which is that “it engages the reader in one long wrestling match.” She says that like it’s a bad thing, whereas I thought it was kind of the point and much of the satisfaction.

In yesterday’s Miami Herald, Ellen Kanner calls Lost Memory of Skin “fearless,” combining “passion and outrage, surprising bits of wit and astringent prose.” But in the end, she judges the Professor a failed character, a “cypher to himself, the reader, and ultimately to Banks,” diverting attention from where it belongs, with the Kid.

I could not disagree more strongly, finding the Professor such a vivid character that the Kid had to slowly win back my attention and readerly allegiance — which he did by never succumbing to self-pity, though he is a pitiable character, by always taking responsibility for his actions and his situation.

Both Kanner and Maslin make much of the novel’s echoes of Huckleberry Finn, and I noticed them, too, especially in the latter portion of the novel, when the Kid lights out for the swamp and lives a few days on a houseboat. But the comparison doesn’t go very far — where’s Jim? Where’s Tom?

The real classic novel shadowing this story turns out to be Treasure Island. The Kid is a modern-day Jim Hawkins, the Professor a sort of Long John Silver. I confess I was not astute enough to see this for myself, but when Banks mentioned it in the interview, everything fell into place like one of those Magic Eye pictures so popular in the Age of Clinton.

In the end, it does not matter whether the Kid is Huck Finn or Jim Hawkins. He is both, echoing lonely boys of earlier times, and he is all of us, lost and struggling in a new technological wilderness changing faster than we can keep up.

What he really shares with Huck and Jim Hawkins is an inner courage, and it gives the book what hope and optimism it has to offer the reader.

Russell Banks will be at Books & Books at 8 p.m. Free. 265 Aragon Ave. Coral Gables. For more information, see the Books & Books website.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2011 7:42 pm

    // Light Therapy

  2. Cheryl Jorgensen permalink
    February 23, 2012 1:06 am

    Dear Russell Banks,
    Love your latest book, “Lost Memory of Skin.” Sexual crime is a vexed problem in our society and I wonder if the Professor was on the money when he explained that the incidence of pedophilia is rising proportionately to the powerlessness many people experience in their own lives.

    Was very moved by your main character, the Kid. An author myself, I have written a nonfiction about a man convicted of rape in Australia. Called “The Taint,” it is online and I believe you can download it from its title or my name, Cheryl Jorgensen.

    Many thanks.

  3. February 23, 2012 1:16 am

    Would love your comments on my true story “The Taint” which is online. The hypocrisy of society which uses sex to sell practically anything to anyone and then comes down so heavily on people like the Kid, is appalling. The loneliness of that young man will haunt me for some time.

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