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on December 6, 2011
This is a monumental achievement by one of America's finest writers. The "Lost Memory of Skin" is a book that will linger with you long after you've finished the last sentence. The story tackles tough subject matter, convicted sex offenders, sexual objectification of young people and the digitization of erotic content in a manner that doesn't lecture the reader. It does so with tremendous nuance that make stereotypes and simplistic judgements impossible.

At the heart of the story is the Kid, an early 20s sex offender living in a homeless encampment under a causeway in South Florida (Miami disguised as "Calusa") with other convicted sex offenders. Undoubtedly, the first couple of pages yield the normal disdain for the Kid because how else could you feel about a convicted sex offender. From this initial judgement and associated stigma, Banks slowly peels away the onion around the Kid --- his familial, social and economic circumstances --- until we are left with a far different perspective of a much more complex character. Only someone at the top of their craft could credibly build empathy around this type of character, blurring the lines between guilt and innocence, good and evil.

Shortly into the novel, we are introduced to the Professor, an obese genius with a shadowy and cryptic past, who is now a professor at the local university. There he studies and researches homelessness and more recently homelesses among sex offenders. An uneasy relationship builds between the Kid and the Professor -- is it exploitation, pure research with an eye toward better public consciousness and understanding of cause and effect of these two conditions or something else. Once again, Banks has full command, dropping enough crumbs for the reader without leading them to the meal. The truth is never what it seems for the characters and the reader, revealing more than meets the eye with each passing page while further obscuring other things.

In the last third of the novel, Banks adds an extra element of suspense and drama that had me on the fence for a while. I initially was quite skeptical of the plot twist and convinced myself it was not going to work, resulting in a big letdown and disaster from such a promising and brilliant beginning and middle. Well, I was certainly wrong. Banks effortlessly brings this last plot twist effortlessly back in a way that is remarkably true to the story and larger themes of the story without neatly wrapping a neat bow on each and every difficult question.

There are some parts of the book that left a terrible pit at the bottom of my stomach, one in particular at Benbow's where a video shoot is ambiguous enough but unnerving that I was nervous about where Banks was going to take it. Once again, I'm glad this was from the pen of someone as skilled as Banks.

"Lost Memory of Skin" is what great fiction is all about --- it is so engrossing you cannot put it down, it creates three dimensional characters, evokes a rich tapestry of place and time and tackles tough issues of the day with purpose but without lecturing or suggesting answers are simple.
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on November 13, 2012
Lost Memory of Skin Russell Banks' novel belongs to the social commentary genre, but it's no Lord of the Flies. Lost Memory begins promisingly enough, introducing us to "the Kid" who lives under the causeway along with a few other sex offenders who are prohibited from living practically anywhere, so they end up there. There is no community; the Kid is solitary almost beyond imagining.

Eventually he finds himself under the protection of an eccentric mountain of a man with a prodigious intellect and a social scientist's interest in the causes and consequences of sex offenders. Both the Kid and the Professor are, to put it mildly, social outliers, and their intertwining stories are meant to illuminate--well, something, but it goes from a little confusing to a confusing mess as the story unfolds. If Banks has something to say about the causes and consequences of sexual perversion, it seems to be a retread of the tired trope about rape: It's not about sex, it's about power. Only here, the emphasis is on the instigator, whose existence is so starved for efficacy that, somehow, he gets all sexually weird, or something. And let's not get started on the fat professor who weighs over 500 pounds and is smarter than practically anybody alive but who, now that he's no longer a spy (yes), is a pretty good guy with resources that beggar explanation, given that he's just an adjunct prof at a regional university.

The Kid never did anything very bad to deserve his fate; actually, he didn't do anything at all, so don't worry, you won't have a problem sympathizing with him. Or the gross professor, either. If Banks manages to tickle your urge to feel outraged by society's endless capacity for getting it wrong when dealing with misfits, you might even enjoy the book. But I wouldn't count on it.
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on October 25, 2011
Lost Memory of Skin is my first introduction to Russell Banks. I'm not sure how I have avoided him all these years, but I will be going back to check out some of what I missed.

Banks certainly didn't pick an easy topic in Lost Memory of Skin. His focus is on convicted sex offenders who, out of necessity, form a loose-knit community of men living under a Florida causeway. Under Florida law, the men must remain in the county while at the same time remaining 2,500 feet from any school, daycare center or other places where children gather. That leaves the men few options: under the causeway, in a swamp or at an airport terminal.

Among the modern-day trolls beneath a bridge is Kid (few of the characters go by real names in the book, adding to Banks' themes of truth and identity). Kid is a 22-year-old registered sex offender who can pass as a teenager. He was addicted to Internet porn and in his first and only attempt to reach out to what he thought was a real person is swept up in a sting, sent to jail, labeled a sex offender and is forced to wear an ankle monitor for 10 years. Kid is no noble Jean Val Jean, but neither is he truly a monster. The opening chapters of the book that detail Kid's life as a modern pariah are fascinating, despite the often bleak subject matter.

Into Kid's life steps the other main character, a morbidly obese sociology professor who wants to interview the Kid and turn him and his fellow causeway castaways into productive citizens. I'm guessing that many of the people who have problems with the book are more likely to stumble over the Professor than the Kid. For one thing, the Professor's addiction to food are described in more lurid detail than the Kid's addiction to porn. As a result, the Professor comes across as more grotesque than just about any other character.

And then there's the question of agendas. Is the Professor really what he seems? What does he really want from the Kid? Eventually the two build enough of a rapport that the Professor is able to start organizing the men beneath the causeway. They establish rules and choose leaders in the hope that if they can police themselves they can avoid future brutal police raids. But before the changes can fully take effect in the tiny community, disaster in the form of a hurricane strikes.

To say more about the plot would be to give too much away. Suffice it to say that before the story is over we're confronted with the issue of identity and truth and how the two don't always fit together.

I really enjoyed this novel, despite a few eye-rolling moments. Banks sometimes get a bit heavy-handed and pendantic when he writes about America's revulsion to sex offenders despite society's and the media's sexualization of young children. It's a good point, but could have been handled in a less preachy manner. And then there's a new character introduced in the last portion of the book who strains credibility and seems to have been written solely to steer the Kid through some murky moral matters. Overall, Lost Memory of Skin is one of those books that may be uncomfortable to read at times, but makes you confront issues you felt you'd never consider.
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on December 5, 2016
I came to Lost Memory of Skin because it was used as an example in another non-fiction book, and example of how the contemporary predicament of the human being is to be disassociated with other humans. The book is certainly worthwhile as that kind of cautionary parable. However, it does ring a little hollow in the writing. Certain questions seem to be brought up without being answered completely, not hauntingly but rather somewhat frustratingly. Nevertheless, the characters are easy to empathize with, and you do find yourself pulled into a story that at times you will think is dystopian and at other times will make you wonder if the world in which you live in is a dystopia itself.
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on February 5, 2017
This is a book that I definitely struggled to get through but when I was done I was glad to have read it. I don't know if I would recommend this book to everyone for it is a very strange book. The plot itself is rather random, but the character development is amazing.

Besides the character development, the book's main theme is very out of the ordinary and makes you consider reconceptualizing your perception of sex offenders. That's a strong statement, I know, but take a moment to think on this.

A lot of the current talk about ending mass incarceration has focused on giving more leeway to non-violent offenders. This makes sense, for it is appealing to the general public and is more politically correct. However, ostracizing violent offenders doesn't necessarily solve the problem and promotes the idea that prison is not for rehabilitation but purely for punishment.

This book dives into this very idea by humanizing sex offenders, which is itself a feat. Like many, I do not have any warm feelings for sex offenders, particularly as a woman and given the current judicial system and cultural climate that leaves rapists unpunished. However, this book challenged my conceptions of these ideas and definitely has me seeing things less in black and white, and more on a spectrum of grey.

I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a different sort of read and is interested in having their views challenged on a seemingly straight forward topic.
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on January 10, 2012
Russell Banks doesn't write about cheery subjects very much, and this is not an exception. This is a story about a young convicted sex-offender ("The Kid"), living under a causeway where he and other sex-offenders must live in order to abide by parole requirements that they live at least 2500 feet from any location where children are regularly present.

It's also a story about a man called "The Professor" who befriends the Kid. The Professor is a professor of sociology at nearby Calusa State University. He tells the Kid that he'd like to interview him as a part of his research on people like the Kid, how they live, how they can construct lives within the constraints they are required to live under.

I won't spoil the story -- part of what I like about the novel is how it unfolds, how we, along with the Kid, piece together what is going on little by little, and, in the end, still can't be sure. We don't know much about the Kid either at the beginning -- we don't even know what his actual offense was until about halfway through the book. As a reader, my own sympathies for him develop as well as I learn about him. After all, he is a convicted sex offender, not a very sympathetic figure. But as he unfolds the story, Banks gives us a chance to see the Kid's life from the inside out, giving us the basis for seeing ourselves in even such an alien and ruined character.

The Professor is a bundle of misdirection -- stories about himself, told to the Kid, to his wife, and to himself, that don't fit together and that seem to conceal each other as if each were the cover story for the others. But this is the story of all of us to a greater or lesser degree. We recast our actions and the events in our lives through explanations, sometimes self-serving, sometimes just different by way of the need for some kind of explanation. The Kid's own story about his offense carries a similar fog of uncertainty. No one explanation is the right one -- they all swirl in an ambiguity we cannot resolve by simply paying closer attention to the facts.

But what the Kid's encounter with the Professor does, along with a devastating storm that destroys the causeway settlement, is produce in him an urgency for resolution to counter this inevitability of uncertainty. You can't wait to know before you act -- where knowing is impossible, you must decide, believe, and act. By the end of the book, that's what the Kid does.

If I find any fault with the book, it's with the explicitly philosophical conversations between the Kid and a reporter he meets toward the end of the story. Up until that point, the story tells itself, unfolding bit by bit. But many of the thoughts about knowledge, uncertainty, and the act of belief or resolution I mentioned above are spoken in dialogue between the Kid and the reporter. One of the great advantages, I think, of novels over philosophy is their ability to show rather than to say, to let the point unfold in a reality akin to real life rather than to simply state it and argue for it. That may only be a quibble with the book. I enjoyed it.
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VINE VOICEon June 27, 2012
Continental Drift (P.S.) captured and held my attention from the very first words. Lost Memory of Skin started with the same sort of bang, introducing several very interesting characters, living under a bridge or in a cheap apartment, living a life very foreign to my own -- and I grew to believe, very foreign to Russell Banks as well. In that world, the Kid is more of a symbol than a real person: living with other sex offenders wearing electronic shackles with very little to live for or enjoy.

Banks served on a jury considering the crimes of a sex offender and also was aware of an encampment of registered sex offenders living under the Tuttle Causeway near his home in Florida. Banks was quoted:

"The guy was clearly guilty. 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."

I thought Banks was effective in portraying the two dimensional lives of these men and women, their loneliness and alienation, and at times I thought Banks was writing an allegory for the digital age -- where none of us are able to get beyond our FaceBook personas and truly connect with something real within ourselves and other people we care about. One hint of these deeper meanings: the Kid describes how the electronic shackles confer a status on their wearers, depending on how advanced the technology of the shackle is.

The Kid does make some stumbling progress in getting in touch with his own feelings, and perhaps with the feelings of a few other "cut out" characters. But his options are terribly limited, and the novel ended with a whimper for me. Worse, much of the novel seemed just irrelevant; the history of Florida just didn't connect.

I'm tempted to re-read Lost Memory of Skin to see what I've missed, but I suspect Continental Drift would be much more rewarding.

Robert C. Ross
June 2012
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on January 14, 2012
A stunning work. Over a span of multiple novels, Russell Banks has garnered a sort of blue collar reputation with edgy and ethereal dissertations such as `Affliction' and `Rule of the Bone'. With his latest, `Lost Memory of Skin', he enters a whole new realm and subculture when he tackles the never discussed and universally despised topic of convicted sex offenders. Herein, he develops a character, this `Kid', who is indeed guilty of a sex crime and makes him become, instead of heinous, human. Establishing in him a personality that is sympathetic, instinctively intelligent (with little formal education) and with a base that is likeable and honest, Banks has seemingly done the impossible by making a reprehensible crime and person empathetic. This takes the work of a powerful writer and shows that Banks, to me, is at the height of his literary powers.

The premise with this story is that it mirrors real life conditions that convicted sex offenders undergo today. Banks actually used, as a base, the outpost under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami, that ill fated encampment that was disbanded in 2010 for this work. Establishing, along with the Kid, a motley band of characters, Banks introduces us to the world of the despondent and outcast. The Kid is a 22 year old ex-military, with a pet iguana, trying to survive the harsh conditions that all convicted offenders must undertake after serving their jail terms. Equipped with constant monitoring, an ankle GPS system, he and the others are dramatically portrayed here as Banks clearly has somehow established the mindset of these people. Expanding the Kid's surrounding's and introducing a counter balance of sorts with `The Professor', a local university's tenured department head with a lifetime of secrets all his own, we follow the pair through initial interaction, police raids, a hurricane and a somewhat surprising ending.

All throughout, Banks maintains this muscularity and sincerity in both the Kid's and the Professor's character and as a result, they take on a dynamic and believability that has a different nuance from other fiction that I've read. Carrying a dark and sometimes insular quality to the work while keeping it always literary is an amazing gift that Banks exploits here again and again and I found this to be starkly attractive. I can say that Russell Banks is definitely added to my list of favorite authors and I'd challenge that after internalizing `Lost Memory of Skin', he'll be one of yours also.
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on January 1, 2013
First of all, if you like definitive endings, skip this. You won't get one. And the ending you do get is not at all satisfying, as far as I'm concerned. Second, so much was "off" about this story. Characters did things that seemed "out of character," some events just didn't "fit" with the rest of the story, the facts used in the book were employed jarringly or intrusively instead of integrated elegantly. I read the whole thing, hoping the ending would be worth it. It wasn't. (It was realistic, though. Just not satisfying after slogging through this book.) The professor storyline is bizarre, brings the Kid's story out of reality, has no closure and seems completely unrelated to THIS book. I've never read Banks before, but I have no interest in reading anything else by him, now.
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on May 23, 2013
Toward the end of this book a travel writer denies being a "novelist trying to depress people." Maybe the author took that for his role, for this is a depressing book. Mr. Banks is a justifiably renowned literary author, but this is not his best work (in my just-a-reader opinion).
The main characters are a barely self-aware sex offender and a grossly obese sociology professor, who may be a pedophile, a super spy or neither. All we can be sure of is that he's a fat, manipulative genius. Most of the book is exposition, so much so that dialog is presented in italics. We are privy to the inner thoughts of all the characters, which center on self justification and become interchangeable after a while, which may have been the author's intention. The characters are depersonalized to titles: the Kid, the Professor, the Wife, the Writer...
The book works as an indictment of how our society allows children to the labeled as losers and ignored until they break a rule and are inducted into the criminal justice system. The Kid is less a sexual predator than a feral child raised by internet porn. Wolves would have been better.
Don't read if you're depressed unless you'd like a little Schadenfreude.
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