"Lost Memory of Skin" (Ecco), by Russell Banks: One of America's finest writers has written a novel about sex offenders, and he's done so in such a powerful and insightful way that "Lost Memory of Skin" should be required reading for anyone interested in fixing the country's broken criminal justice system.
Banks, inspired by a real-life colony of offenders set up under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami, explores the story of a 22-year-old man prosecuted for an online almost-liaison with an underage girl and branded for the next nine years as a convicted child molester.
Without sounding preachy or sentimental, Banks delves into the mind of the Kid; his advocate, the Professor; and a cast of society's rejects forced to take up residence beneath an overpass.
Forbidden from living near a school, daycare center, playground or any other place that attracts children, the sex offenders who choose to follow the law and stay within the confines of their GPS anklets have three options: the airport, the wilds of the Appalachee swamp in the Panzacola National Park or the causeway.
We learn about the Kid's family, his childhood, his aborted attempt to become a soldier in the U.S. Army. We learn of his pain, his insecurity, his regret. We also watch him grow increasingly hopeless while, at the same time, he's forced to trust the Professor and others for his survival.
Banks also offers a glimpse at the Professor, whose life and past are perhaps more checkered than the Kid's.
Throughout the darkness of his story, we're treated to Banks' command of the language and graceful turn of phrase such as his description of the post-hurricane landscape: "The dark eastern sky has started bleeding gray. Near the horizon the boiling clouds are dark green. He can make out flooded citrus groves, crushed gravel side roads, a soaked wind-flattened landscape with wildly scattered palm and palmetto fronds and here and there abandoned cars and pickups. ... And no people."
Like "Affliction," "The Sweet Hereafter" and others, Banks, in his latest novel, takes an unflinching look at people at their worst and manages to turn it into art.