By Chet Yarbrough
Russell Banks makes human nature’s faults a teaching tool for the uninformed.
“Lost Memory of Skin” is about criminals tagged with the appellation of sex offender. The main character, the Kid, is a convicted sex offender. He is convicted as a 21-year-old adult intending to have sex with a 14-year-old girl. This early revelation in Banks’ book tempts a reader to discard the story; i.e. a similar reaction is felt when reading Humbert Humbert’s deluded reasons for seduction of a minor in Nabokov’s “Lolita”.
However, readers need to stick with Bank’s story. It is revelatory in the sense that it exposes a seamy side of human nature that exists in many human beings. The negative aspects of human nature are only overcome through societal intervention and evolution. No rational adult believes adult seduction of children is acceptable human behavior. Even though one makes that statement, newspapers are filled with incidents that violate societal taboos.
Humanity is driven by sex. Like Hobbes’ Leviathan, the state must step in to mitigate evil actions by individuals that are compelled by human nature. “Lost Memory of Skin” reveals how difficult it is to allow human freedom of choice without violating the rights of others.
The Kid is guilty. His guilt is for attempt of a sexual act forbidden by society. Because the Kid is listed on a national sex offenders list, he is marked with a scarlet letter that cannot be removed. His penalty is 10 years of probation that destroys his ability to find a good job, get a decent education, or become a positive contributor to society.
“Lost Memory of Skin” creates a miraculous story of escape for the Kid. The Kid is offered a means of redemption, designed by a brilliant professor of sociology that may or may not be who he says he is. The Professor is described as a morbidly obese giant of a man who has an off-the-charts IQ and an eidetic memory. The Professor seems to have lived many lives. The Professor exemplifies the idea of a lost memory of skin by shedding, like a snake in the Garden of Eden, one skin for another. Each memory of a past life is erased by the Professor’s assumption of a new skin, a new life. A “Lost Memory of Skin” works for the Professor up until the day two strangers knock on his door and talk to his wife.
Readers will be enlightened, appalled, and entertained by Banks’ creative and imaginative literary gifts. Banks does not have the lyricism of Nabokov but he absolutely has a gift for telling a story about life on the edges of society.