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Russell Banks’s ‘Lost Memory of Skin’

Author’s Characters Live in the Shadows


The Kid inhabits a world of pariahs, all men, all convicted sex offenders, and like his fellow occupants of the concrete island under the Causeway, the Kid wears an ankle bracelet that monitors his movements. He can’t live near a school or daycare facility or use the internet. No landlord will rent to him, and even if one did, the Kid doesn’t have money; he got sacked from his job as a busboy.

Russell Banks deserves his reputation as one of our finest storytellers. His novels and short stories usually revolve around characters who occupy the drab outskirts of society. In Lost Memory of Skin, the characters live in the shadows. To survive in this world, the Kid — the reader never learns his true name — tries to make himself as small as possible, to become almost invisible. Being unremarkable and forgettable got him through high school and a calamitous stint in the army. Degradation and failure are the Kid’s second nature, reinforced by a neglectful mother and too many hours holed up in his bedroom watching porn on the internet. The central irony of the Kid’s forlorn life is that when he was arrested for soliciting sex from a minor he met online, he had never kissed a girl, let alone had sex with one.

The Professor is a prisoner of a different sort. A brilliant polymath trapped in a morbidly obese body, he’s as much a misfit as the Kid. As he always does, Banks gets to the humanity at the core of these flawed, kindred characters, slipping the reader inside their skin; we see and feel what they see and feel. The Kid becomes the one person the Professor trusts, while the Professor helps the Kid see himself in a different light, not as a terminally bad, irredeemable person, but as an inherently decent one who did a bad thing.

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