Do not be fooled by the iguana on the cover, Lost Memory of Skin is about sex offenders

Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks

So many accomplishments to speak of this week:

1. I cleaned my apartment! Not in the half-heartedly dusted random surfaces way, but like a for real cleaning, the kind where you move big pieces of furniture and discover weeks’ (months’) worth of hair ties and bottle caps, most of which the cat has pushed together into a central under-couch nest of mischief. Despite my apartment being so small it was until recently technically illegal, this kind of thorough cleaning somehow took me four hours to complete, roughly equivalent to four Weezer albums, which I listened to in order of least favorite to most because obviously that’s just good motivational planning.

2. Per my annual schedule, I completed my Fall Gym Visit. See you in four months, New York Sports Club. (Speaking of which, please stop updating your equipment so frequently that I have to re-learn how to turn on a stationary bike every time I show up. Thx.)

3. I finished, for what feels like the first time in months (a cursory blog review agrees), a really good, really interesting literary novel that made me think about stuff other than which real housewife should legitimately be considered the most famous and whether or not I should buy peanut butter for the express purpose of trying a peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwich.

Lost Memory of Skin is indeed a thinker, and a downer. At the center of the novel is The Kid, a 22-year-old sex offender who lives under a freeway overpass in a semi-legitimate community of other sex offenders, residing thusly because it is the only location in the county that’s not within 2,500 feet of a school, playground or other place where kids gather. After a police raid on the shantytown, The Kid meets The Professor, who is undertaking a study of the overlap between the homeless and sex offenders and offers The Kid compensation, and indirectly friendship, in exchange for the ability to interview him.

There is a modicum of mystery, or at least vagueness, to Lost Memory of Skin, in that The Professor isn’t necessarily who he seems. But the real greatness of the novel is in the story of The Kid, and of the community under the causeway. The book is based on an actual place, the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Florida, where a group of sex offenders lived until it was shut down in 2010. And while The Kid is a fictional character, his story is not: Offenders who have served their prison sentences but must remain in a certain region for the duration of their parole have very few, and sometimes no, places to live that aren’t in violation of distance requirement from children. Moreover, even sex offenders with traditional living arrangements are subject to the endless scrutiny and backlash of their neighbors, who can learn at least the generic nature of their offense online.

Of course, LMOS author Russell Banks isn’t necessarily arguing against the severity of post-incarceration punishment levied against this particular type of criminal. But he does touch on the very uncomfortable question of how you stack precaution up against pragmatism. More specifically, he spotlights the current system’s inability (or unwillingness) to differentiate between an actual child molester and a 20-year-old who had consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend.

I put the topic to my dad, who works at the intersection of sexual offenders and the mentally challenged and so probably has above-average empathy for this particular topic. He replied that while Megan’s Law [the law that created the sexual offender registry] definitely hobbles mentally normal men in terms of a getting a life back in society, as a parent he’d have been furious if a pedophile had been placed near our home without his knowledge. Which makes sense, except a run-of-the-mill murderer could just as easily live nearby and my parents would have been none the wiser.

In the vein of Lionel Shriver, Lost Memory of Skin doesn’t come down definitively on either side of the questions it raises, but merely brings them up in such a measured and nuanced way that you’re forced past knee-jerk prejudice and into a more difficult line of thought. Banks never asks you to like his characters, merely to face them. And when your characters are convicted sex offenders, facing them is challenge enough.


TITLE: Lost Memory of Skin
AUTHOR: Russell Banks
PAGES: 416 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Cloudsplitter, The Sweet Hereafter
SORTA LIKE: Little Children meets The Woodsman
FIRST LINE: “It isn’t like The Kid is locally famous for doing a good or a bad thing and even if people knew his real name it wouldn’t change how they treat him unless they looked it up online which is not something he wants to encourage.”

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