A little over three-hundred pages into Russell Banks’ new novel Lost Memory of Skin a character from one of his earlier novels arrives in the story. It’s Delores Driscoll, the small-town school bus driver from The Sweet Hereafter—the woman behind the wheel when fourteen children were killed in an accident that was probably her fault. In the new novel she is remarried and living on the edge of a Florida swamp. No direct reference is made to the great tragedy that looms in her past. It’s a beautiful touch, since the principal characters in Lost Memory of Skin are people haunted by histories they can never escape.
The centerpiece of Banks’ novel is a sex-offender shantytown under a causeway overpass, on the outskirts of a city that looks an awful lot like Miami. The registered offenders cannot leave the county, but they also can’t live within 2,500 feet of any place minors might congregate. It’s a geographically impossible mandate, and, though this encampment is their only legal refuge, no one wants them there.
The Kid, a 23-year-old virgin, is one of the offenders forced to live under the bridge. (A craigslist ad about his pet iguana led him by degrees into an increasingly explicit email exchange with an underage girl, whom he eventually plotted to meet.) The Kid has been released from prison and must spend the next decade recharging his ankle monitor and contemplating the leper-like stigma his conviction carries.
The Kid’s unlikely benefactor is a morbidly obese sociology professor who is doing research on homelessness and recidivism among sex offenders. The man is a celebrated genius, but he’s hard to read, and his intentions are seldom clear to the Kid. All the Kid knows is that he can’t afford to reject the Professor’s generosity and help. When a hurricane sweeps through the encampment, lies are pulled apart, secrets are dredged up, and everything we thought we knew about Banks’ characters vanishes into a cloud of uncertainty.
Banks frustrates our need to vilify, file, and forget people like the Kid. On the one hand, the Kid is guiltier than we hope we’ll ever be, but at the same time he’s as guileless as we wish we were.
Banks, at his best, is a master of capturing the complexity of a situation and the psychological nuance of each character. In this case, we hear everyone’s reasons—or rationalizations—for what he’s done, and yet we suspect everything we hear. We’re left with the uneasy task of judging the characters from a position of uncertainty. We want to think in terms of truth and lies, guilt and innocence, but Banks forces us to honestly entertain the complicated alloys of both that dominate our lives and behavior.
“Everyone has a story that proclaims his innocence,” one of the book’s least sympathetic characters tells the Kid. “It’s human nature. I’m a lawyer, Kid. I’ve heard them all.” But the Kid refuses to succumb to reductionistic cynicism; he’s too basically honest to allow himself off the hook that easily. Likewise, Banks frustrates our need to vilify, file, and forget people like the Kid. On the one hand, the Kid is guiltier than we hope we’ll ever be, but at the same time he’s as guileless as we wish we were.
Anyone can make a terrible mistake in a moment of impulse or inattention. Delores Driscoll knows this, and when she arrives in the novel she’s a lonely voice of compassion. She embraces the Kid, despite his stigma, and she gently chastises her husband for his natural mistrust and suspicion. In doing so, she makes us wonder by what inscrutable logic we choose to dole out second chances.