Lost Memory Of Skin, By Russell Banks

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The Independent Culture

The Causeway connects the Great Barrier Isles on Florida's Gulf coast with the mainland at nondescript Calusa City. Tucked underneath its concrete offramp is a shanty of tarps, tents and shelters lashed together from jetsam to house the specific flotsam of Calusa County, whose state ordinances dictate that sex offenders must not dwell within 2,500 feet of any location where children might congregate.

The colonists show wary respect in the shared need for personal security but, as one of them grunts, homelessness is never a team sport. Russell Banks sketches in a curious cast of misfits from Plato the Greek, whose generator charges everyone's cell phones and GPS monitoring anklets, to a former Senator (caught with sex toys in an airport hotel awaiting children procured via the internet) whose social unease in this underclass is palpable.

From the novel's opening scene, in which a politically-prompted police bust staged in front of smirking reporters smashes through the encampment, Banks focuses on the displaced fragility of the Kid, a drop out convicted of soliciting a minor but more guilty of stupidity than sexual predation. The Kid's passivity is almost pathological. Largely ignored by his hedonistic mother, he grew up with a pet iguana for close family and an excessive early-teenage porn habit. At 22, the Kid has already been "shit-canned" out of the army for distributing porn but has never had a girlfriend or meaningful emotional experience.

Banks cleverly translates the glassy sheen of the Kid's blank, porn-numbed personality onto his narrative, which the Kid navigates with chilling passivity. When a local professor drops by seemingly to further his research into sex offenders and homelessness, the Kid is mildly mistrustful but compliant.

In some respects, Lost Memory of Skin presents two different novels competing for attention, both interesting but somehow not fully formed. The Professor's possibly deceitful interest in the Kid propels Banks's plot through still water but only really catches a current when his own shady past and multiple identities resurface to take a bite (a theme that Banks worked with more vigour in his punchy 2004 novel The Darling). Two-thirds through, the novel picks up some spooky nuances that alter the tone and pace but too often feel stage-managed and unpersuasive. At other points, Lost Memory of Skin feels like it could be more of an inquiry into morals, or the trust and identity issues surrounding homelessness and dysfunction; but its philosophical undertow is never fully fleshed.

Banks explored some of these areas before in his more picaresque 1994 novel Rule of the Bone. The Kid accepts his punishment but never considers his crime wrong, only illegal. Perhaps in keeping with his stunted personality, there's no real evisceration of morality that might add weight to the narrative. More substantial issues are unexplored – how gullibility in the anonymised portal of the internet can result in catastrophic life-changes; or why America appears to pursue a medieval approach of untouchable exile rather than rehabilitation for some criminals.

Banks is a superb prose stylist, as demonstrated by the pin-sharp stories in his 2000 collection The Angel on the Roof, or his tightly-plotted 2008 novel of twisted intimacy, The Reserve. This latest novel is more mixed. It reads well but remains curiously unsatisfying, perhaps because Banks's evident skills at character and plot do not fully flourish here. Neither thriller nor social anatomy, Lost Memory of Skin reprises some of the author's interests in marginal existences without allowing the reader enough purchase on his subject.