Russell Banks bares the soul of a sex offender in Skin

Minor problems
By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 12, 2011

When it comes to reprobate or ostracized characters, Russell Banks has no fear. He slips eloquently into the skin of an alcoholic murderer in Affliction, terrorists in both Cloudsplitter and The Darling, a human trafficker in Continental Drift, a teenaged drug dealer in Rule of the Bone, and an incestuous father in The Sweet Hereafter. In the uneven but formidable picaresque of his latest, Lost Memory of Skin, he combines traits of the latter two characters in one that's more extreme than either — a convicted 22-year-old pedophile, the Kid.

This deviant is no Humbert Humbert. He's more like Huck Finn, as Banks points out perhaps too often in the book — an un-lettered, goodhearted boy living on the fringe. Banks, narrating from the Kid's point of view in the third person, brings the boy's benighted but beguiling consciousness to life with language and syntax that evokes his voice. The convoluted run-on sentences tumble like someone falling down a flight of stairs and ending up, somehow, standing upright.

The style smoothes the way to entering the Kid's world, but it also helps that, as perps go, he isn't exactly hardcore; in fact, he's still a virgin. He's nothing like his fellow parolee the Shyster, a once-powerful politician with a taste for eight-year-olds. But he's not innocent, either. Unsatisfied with the online porn he's addicted to, he yearns, as the title suggests, to pass beyond the image to the skin itself. And so he makes the voyeur's fatal mistake, and reaches for the adolescent reality.

Busted, he serves his time, is paroled, gets fitted with an ankle bracelet, and is ordered to stay 2500 feet away from any kids. With no other options, he joins the other chomo pariahs in their shantytown under a causeway in the fictitious city of Calusa, Florida. That is, until a police raid out of The Grapes of Wrath scatters them, killing the Kid's only friend, an iguana, in the process.

That's when the Professor enters the Kid's life, another character that challenges reader empathy. Brilliant, morbidly obese, weighing in at a "quarter of a ton," he enlists the Kid in a research project studying the link between homelessness and criminal sexual behavior. He interviews him, and the Q & A provides an expository shortcut, revealing all the Kid's pathetic secrets. The Professor's secrets, though, run far deeper and defy resolution. They dominate the last third of the book.

Ultimately, Banks raises the question not just about media figments like the Internet replacing the reality of the skin, but also about the soul within. He also questions the value of and motivation behind such probing. Near the end of the book a "travel writer" who looks a lot like Banks himself points out that a character's secrets have significance only if he can use them in an article. Otherwise, they don't concern him. "[W]e all tell little lies," he says, "sometimes for innocent reasons. To make friends, for instance, or to avoid embarrassment. Or just to keep things simple. Sometimes the truth is too complicated to pass along in a short conversation or interview. And sometimes it's just irrelevant."

Another character agrees. She should know — she's Dolores Driscoll, the driver at the wheel when the school bus plunged into a lake and killed and crippled the children in The Sweet Hereafter. Her secret is safe in this book. But both books are themselves lies of a different sort — fictions that don't conceal, but lay bare the truth.

RUSSELL BANKS | Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St, Brookline | October 13 @ 6 pm | 617.566.6660

  Topics: Books , Books, Russell Banks, sex offender,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   REVIEW: WHITE ZOMBIE  |  February 12, 2013
    This Kino Classics release is worth it if only for historical purposes, since it demonstrates that from the start zombie films embodied the Marxist paradigm of capitalism (Lugosi) versus labor (zombies).
  •   REVIEW: BEAUTIFUL CREATURES  |  February 11, 2013
    Throughout his adaptation of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's YA novel, Richard Lagravenese drops the names of books that would have provided a more rewarding way of spending a couple of hours than watching this movie.
  •   LAST ACTION HEROES?  |  February 05, 2013
    Maybe it was the moment in The Last Stand when a guy exploded, or the scene when Arnold sawed someone in half with a Vickers machine gun, or maybe it was the 10th brain-splattering bullet to the head in Sylvester Stallone's Bullet to the Head .
  •   REVIEW: SIDE EFFECTS  |  February 08, 2013
    Ironically, the filmmaker who started his career with sex, lies, and videotape , a film boosting female sexuality and empowerment, now ends it with a so-so thriller that resorts to the same old misogyny.
  •   REVIEW: HORS SATAN  |  January 30, 2013
    God works in strange ways, especially when Bruno Dumont directs him. Or is that the devil?

 See all articles by: PETER KEOUGH