Thursday, January 3, 2013

Literary Bite: Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

A few weeks ago I finished a book, set it on my bedside table, and noticed Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks right next to it, ready to read. This is all good and normal, except that I had absolutely no memory of ever seeing it before/putting it there/where it came from. SpeedyKate, is this from you? I asked, showing her the reptilian cover. Nope, never seen it before. Huh, a book mystery (but not a mystery book – I hate mysteries). Oh well, it was there, in my hands, and I needed a book to read, so why not? 

And I’m so glad I did. Lost Memory of Skin is about a sex offender and a college professor in Florida, which sounds totally bizarre and is totally bizarre, but also very good!  The Kid (a 22-year-old sex offender) lives under a Florida causeway in a colony of other sex offenders, because that’s the only place they are allowed to live in the town, since they have to be 2,500 feet away from anywhere with children. It was fascinating to think about how I read this book – the Kid, despite being superficially despicable (according to society/common sense/cultural norms), really was the protagonist and as a reader, I sympathized with him.

A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, Banks may be the most compassionate fiction writer working today, and the Kid is only his most recent lens into the souls of seemingly decent men who do terribly indecent things out of ignorance, thirst and desperation in a deeply uncaring world. Balancing impressively on a moral tightrope, Banks never absolves the Kid of his actions even as he sympathizes with him. (NYT)

The Professor is an equally complex and thoroughly developed character – he is morbidly obese and incredibly intelligent and also has a very mysterious past (that I won’t give away, but it is good). 

The two meet because the Professor wants to study the intersection of homelessness and sex offenders, and “save” the Kid. The perspective switches between the two and we get glimpses into both pasts, making it clear that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” and that perhaps the curer should be the curee? (I just made up that word – you know what I mean.)

It sounds like a philosophical thinking book, but it is actually very plot-driven. The story started strong and finished even stronger, with unexpected twists and turns; I literally could not put it down for the last half. It is serious and sometimes depressing, but also sometimes funny. Banks is an incredible author and I will definitely look into his other books. 

You should read this! And let me know because I really really really want to discuss the ending with someone – this would be a great book club book.

Oh and the solution to my book-finding mystery is that my mama gave it to me over Thanksgiving and I completely forgot. It is one of her book club books for the year and she has not yet read it, so I was the test-dummy. Happy to help!