One of the first things you notice about Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is that most of the characters don’t have names. Or rather, they have names, but go by nicknames in Banks’ world. There is the protagonist, The Kid. The complicating secondary character, The Professor, as well as a host of other individuals that The Kid encounters whom he refers to by pseudonym (given either by them or himself). This is my first book by Banks so I can’t tell you if that’s a trademark of his or not, but it definitely added a layer of mystery to the novel.
As for the plot, it’s not necessarily and easy one to swallow. The Kid is a registered sex offender who lives with a colony of other sex offenders under a bridge in the city of Calusa. Why under a bridge? Because it’s one of the only places that they are allowed to live under the laws that prohibit them being withing a certain radius of parks, public places, homes with children, etc. The Kid plays host a variety of animals throughout the book–including a giant iguana, a parrot, and a dog–and meets a brainy and enigmatic professor who aims to “shape up” the colony. The friendship between The Kid and The Professor deepens over time as you learn more about who each is and how they are connected.
It may sound like a strange and uncomfortable setting and cast of characters–and in many ways I believe Banks wants us to feel this way–but it’s also a background that allows for some provocative questions to be asked about the nature of punishment for sex offenders and about the characteristics that connect all of us, no matter what’s in our past. For most of the book I was pretty drawn into The Kid’s story and experiences of trying to make a living and keep some sort of a roof over his head while also getting to know the strange Professor.
I thought the writing was really strong, with great descriptions of the Calusa swamplands and the flora and fauna within it. But I lost a little momentum when the climax of the story seemed to happen about two-thirds of the way through the novel. While there was still a good amount of story to be wrapped up after that point, I became a little less interested in the plot because the period of most intense energy had already happened for me.
I’d say if you’re open to working through some complicated feelings about the main subjects of this work–sex offenders–and are looking for a good literary fiction book exploring the nature of friendship and identity, then this might be one for you to check out.