Lost Memory of Skin
Russell Banks (Knopf Canada 2011, hardcover) 416 pages, $32msl
Not to insult anyone who chooses to live or vacation there, but if you’re looking for depravity Florida seems to be the place to go. Harry Crews, Alice Hoffman, Elmore Leonard - all have found sex, sin and sedition tanning beneath the palm trees. I do wonder why sometimes. Surely it’s not the orange juice?
No, of course not. More likely it is the topography of Florida’s civilization. After all, once vast acres of swamp are dredged, land-filled, sculpted, paved and built upon what still lurks beneath is still a swamp. I’m speculating here, but I suspect that is what drew Russell Banks to the place. If you look far and dig deep, it is amazing what you might find. The writer is like a hurricane:
The winds have followed the rain, quickly increasing in velocity, and soon sixty- and seventy-mile-an-hour gusts are bending the stalklike trunks of palms and tossing their fronds like unraveled turbans, ripping off the branches of live oak and cotton trees and flattening palmettos, disassembling carefully planted hedges and shrubs, shredding flower gardens and municipal park plantings, kicking trash cans over and blowing the contents into the streets and roads and into the canals and the Bay.
Phew. Now there’s a sentence for you. Lost Memory of Skin is, yes, landscaped with passages of similar epic sweep all designed to set an examination of the lonely and the sordid in an epochal context that comes to the vortex of The Kid.
The Kid is a convicted 22 year old sex offender who because of the terms of his 10 year parole must live under a causeway linking the barrier islands to the fictitious city of Calusa, Florida. He lives there, in a pup tent with his six foot long iguana Iggy along with other sex offenders in tents and makeshift shanties and lean-to shelters made of scraps because under their terms of parole they must maintain residence within Calusa County while also remaining 2500 feet away from any place where children live or regularly congregate. The Kid’s dream is to somehow, some way find a real place to live.
Into this horror picture of the underclass comes The Professor, a huge man, known as the smartest man in the County and a morbidly compulsive eater. He has an academic interest in interviewing The Kid and from there Banks weaves his tale.
Ultimately, Lost Memory of Skin is a story of the dehumanizing effects of the modern world. People are parts to be consumed and discarded like The Professor’s carefully packed meals of meatloaf and macaroni salad, or the porn movies The Kid was addicted to from the age of eleven. It is surely no accident that the principals - The Kid, The Professor, and later The Writer - are never given what we call ‘proper’ names. The Professor speculates that The Kid is likely a William Kydde or Kidd but that is never shared in the novel. Instead, people are just known by what they are rather than who they are.
Banks does not make a huge point of something that truly jumped out at me. Very late in the novel, when The Kid takes up lodgings in the Penzacola Swamp, where he also has an absolutely stunning dream of the migration into the area of dinosaurs, aboriginals and later settlers, he meets Cap and his wife. It is only through the wife’s eyes that we ever truly see The Kid - how he stands, how he moves, how his eyes are shy. It is a beautiful trap for the reader. We think we have seen the character through 300 or so pages, but we haven’t.
At some point, perhaps in a year or even two, I would like to return to this novel and write more about it. That urge must be resisted for now, as it would be cruel of me to disrobe too much of this majestic piece of writing. Let us just say that it will be inevitable that you will wind up examining your own life, the compartments you place your own existence, and the reality of your own relationships. One is really not supposed to say ‘must read’ in writing a review because ‘must read’ is a cliche. Well, cliches exist for a reason. Lost Memory of Skin is a must read.