These days you can go to a sex offender registry and learn where the convicted offenders live in your area and how many there are. What the site can’t tell you, or at least, doesn’t at the moment, is the exact crime each of these registered offenders was convicted of. Without this information, you’re likely to lump all of them into the scary child molester/abductor category and not give them another thought. At least that’s what I did, until I read Russell Banks’ “Lost Memory of Skin.”
When I first heard Banks had written a novel featuring a convicted sex offender as his main character, I was skeptical. I’ve read his work before, I know how absolutely brilliant Banks is, but man, asking a reader to sit with one of the most deplorable kinds of characters for over 400 pages was asking a lot. As a reader, I wasn’t sure I could do it and as a mother, I wasn’t sure I could stomach it. Then one day, I picked up “Lost Memory of Skin” and read the first sentence, then the first paragraph and the first page, and the second, and so on, until I realized I was hooked. Because, in the end, the fact that Russell Banks writes about the down and out in our society with intelligent, highly readable prose kept me reading.
I learned there are various shades of gray in the matters of sex offenses and there are many levels of offense. For instance, a child molester and an eighteen-year-old who has sex with a minor (even a year younger counts here) both get labeled as sex offenders. There is no public differentiation. And with technology in the picture, there are more and more ways young people can make mistakes that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
Such is the case with Banks’ protagonist, the Kid. In the course of the novel, we learn why the Kid is an outcast and living under the bridge with the rest of the area sex offenders. And it is through Banks’ skillful characterization, his ability to go places most of us would turn away from, that we can come to have empathy for him. Not only is there a human story here, but there’s also a mystery: a professor of sociology has decided to interview the Kid and he has a hidden past of his own, a past that soon catches up with him. Banks has us questioning the Professor’s motives right to the end.
Compelling and beautifully written, this book is an important and timely read.