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Canary in a coal mine
on September 30, 2011
The Kid is all alone in the world, hiding in the shadows under the freeway, part of an ever-growing mass of exiles electronically shackled to a society that despises and shuns them.
But who are these modern-day lepers? And why are there so many of them? What if sex offending is a symptom of a malfunctioning society, and these men are just the canaries in the coal mine, carrying the burden of society's shame? What if the Internet is the snake in the Garden of Eden, and pornography is the forbidden fruit?
In "Lost Memory of Skin," best-selling novelist Russell Banks explores the deeper ironies of a culture that condemns pedophiles even while turning its children into dehumanized sexual commodities. But on a deeper level, the novel is about the profound loneliness and alienation of the digital age, the inability of people to get beyond false facades to truly trust and connect with each other.
To the Kid, no one is real. They are all two-dimensional characters. The Professor, a sociologist who takes a mysterious interest in him. The other trolls under the bridge, who regard each other with wary suspicion. Even his own inadequate mother, who abandoned him when he was arrested trying to hook up with a 14-year-old girl he met in a chat room after years of solitary Internet stimulation.
In interviews, Banks has said that the idea for the book came in part from the encampment of registered sex offenders living under the Tuttle Causeway near his home in Florida. Serving as a jury foreman in a child molestation trial also piqued his interest.
"The guy was clearly guilty," he told a reporter. "But he was basically a confused, stupid alcoholic, and it was so easy to imagine this poor stumblebum, in a cloud most of the time, in a world that has been eroticized to such a degree, sitting there and he's sexually inadequate with his wife, and he's a loser, he's out of work, he has no sense of any power in the world whatsoever, so this beast in him starts to arise."
Although the novel is at moments a bit preachy, I found the enigmatic Kid growing on me as he gradually awakens from the fog of fantasy to claim his identity as a decent human being, albeit one with very few choices in life.