“These men are human beings, not chimpanzees or gorillas. They belong to the same species as we do. And we’re not hardwired to commit these acts. If, as it appears, the percentage of the male population who commit these acts has increased exponentially in recent years, and it’s not simply because of criminalization of the behavior and a consequent increase in the reportage of these crimes, then there’s something in the wider culture itself that has changed in recent years, and these men are like the canary in the mine shaft, the first among us to respond to that change, as if their social and ethical immune systems, controls over their behavior, have somehow been damaged or compromised. And if we don’t identify the specific changes in our culture that are attacking our social and ethical immune systems, which we usually refer to as taboos, then before long we’ll all succumb.”
Thus spake the Professor in Russell Bank’s new novel, Lost Memory of Skin.
I left out the penultimate and ultimate sentences of the quote.
“We’ll al become sex offenders, ... Perhaps in a sense we already are.”
Amen, I say, even if I am not as enthusiastic about this book as I would like to be.
Banks is one of my favorite writers. His fictional biography of abolitionist John Brown, Cloudsplitter, is simply fabulous. It is safe to say that Banks inhabited John Brown’s world, making it alive in ways conventional works of history do not.
I turned to his latest book with eager anticipation. I represent men, and they are almost all men, accused of sex offenses. I’ve had clients accused of occupying the entire spectrum of wayward desire, ranging from violent rape, kidnaping and murder to public masturbation. In recent years, my sex offender caseload has exploded. Today’s accusations revolve around the use of the computer: possession of child pornography and solicitation of minors for sex are common charges.
Why this sudden upsurge in cases? Why this savage penalization of desire? I’ve seen many a young man go to prison and then face grim prospects thereafter as a registrant on the sex offender registry. What becomes of them once they are released from prison?
The protagonist in Banks’ new novel is the Kid. He is a young man in his early twenties who grew up without a father in his life. His mother was preoccupied with her own problems. The Kid lived a life of quiet isolation. Left to his own devices, he discovered Internet pornography and the solitary pleasures of masturbation. When he tried to cross the line from solitary fantasy to reality, he erred in a way that landed him briefly in prison, and then out on the streets, as a registered sex offender, banished to a life, somehow, within the confines of the county in which he is on probation, an unforgiving place that prohibits him from living within 2500 feet of a child, any child. Banks is unflinching in his portrayal of the Kid’s desires: one virtue of the work is the matter of fact manner in which Banks writes of the pathos of the Kid’s desire. By work’s end, the Kid is to be pitied. Desire is not so much a looming threat as a tedious burden, a means by which the lost attempt to find themselves in a world without meaning.
The Kid lives in a colony of other shunned sex offenders beneath a highway overpass. There is a pecking order among the outcasts. Chomos, or child molesters, are especially scorned. When the police run the offenders off in anticipation of an election, they scatter. But they return eventually, there is no where else to go.
The Kid can love, but his love is confined to animals. He has, improbably, a pet iguana his mother once bought him as a lark. When his brief stint in the military fails, he comes home to rescue the iguana from the negligent care his mother tried to provide. Izzy provides an anchor, until the police kill Izzy.
There is something elemental about the day-to-day portrayal of the Kid’s life. It resonated with me, certainly. I was raised by a single mother who often seemed overwhelmed by her own needs. I know a thing or two about being untended and fending for myself too soon. I watched the Kid’s struggle with a sense of kinship, and relief that I escaped despair to find prospects far rosier than I had any right to expect. I was reading Banks carried along not just by the beauty of his prose, but with a rapt sense of beholding a life I could easily have lived.
Until the Professor turned up.
The Professor is a mysterious genius, a professor of sociology at a local college who is interested in studying homeless sex offenders. He befriends the Kid. Is his interest professional? Or does the Professor want something? What secrets does the Professor possess?
You will draw your own conclusions about the Professor when you read the book. I won’t spoil it for you. But I will say this: the Professor was an unnecessary artifice in this book, an obese sort of deus ex machina that served no real purpose in terms of the larger proofs the book seeks to portray.
“We know what we believe, ... That’s all anyone gets in this life,” someone tells the Kid near the novel’s end. “We all tell stories that proclaim our innocence.... I’m a lawyer,... I’ve heard them all,” another tells them.
We tell stories. We are such stuff as dreams are made of. Somehow today we tell tawdry tales of good and evil about desire. We banish the Kids and thousands like him, like ourselves, to periphery of our vision. Why? Banks doesn’t know. But I give him credit for trying.
I had wished for a more courageous book than this, a book that tackled despair without an interesting plot twist, or larger than life eccentric characters. The quiet desperation of routine sex offenders is worthy of exploration in its own right. Banks, a brilliant writer, deserves credit for trying. It must say something about our times that even he failed.