AT TWENTY-TWO, the Kid is a virgin. He is also a registered sex offender. He pitches his tent in one of the very few places in Calusa, Florida (a city very much like Miami), where he is allowed, by law, to live: a patch of concrete underneath a causeway that happens to be more than 2,500 feet from where children might gather. With his name and face on the National Sex Offender Registry and a TrackerPAL GPS locked around his ankle, the Kid lacks most of the rights enjoyed by other citizens, not to mention access to dignity and love.
Here are some things he may not or cannot do: sleep in his childhood home, because it lies too close to schools and playgrounds; enter libraries, on whose computers he might watch pornography; get any job not usually given to an illegal immigrant; look a girl in the face; and leave the county for nine more years, when his parole is up. Moreover, the Kid is friendless. His only friend in the world is his pet iguana, an alligator-sized monster he keeps chained to a cinderblock next to his tent to scare off predators.
Russell Banks lays out the Kid’s extraordinary situation in the direct, artless tone of the young-adult novelist launching into a “problem” novel. But what a problem! The Kid is the scrawny, hapless child of a morally and emotionally stunted mother. His childhood has consisted of listening to her service her boyfriends while he sits in the living room. By the time he is ten, he has learned to tune her out by watching pornography on pay-per-view. At the age of twenty-one, he tries to lose his virginity with a fourteen-year-old whom he encounters in an Internet chat room. He is caught before he manages to meet the girl. He does time in jail, but will be listed as a pedophile for the rest of his life.
The America of Russell Banks’s fiction has always been a bleak, punitive place, but in Lost Memory of Skin, its harshness has attained near-mythological proportions. What this book reminds me of most is J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K., which recounts the travails of a supposedly simple-minded black gardener in South Africa during apartheid. The civilization that Michael K. tries to flee feels fairy-tale-like in its feudal horror. The Kid’s seamlessly networked America has the same Kafkaesque quality. If anything, it is more horrifying, because it’s so familiar. In the Kid’s America, the Internet and electronic media serve up sexual temptation by the screenful, then do double duty as surveillance apparatuses, keeping tabs on those poor fools who have been seduced into the wrong kind of behavior. Social media haven’t liberated the Kid, the way they are supposed to have freed his generation from the bureaucratic hierarchies of the past. All they do for him is extend the reach of the cruel and unusual penal code that will continue to stigmatize him long after he has served his time.
The Kid is also simple, in much the same way Michael K. is simple. They both dwell so far outside the society of which they are nominally a part that they have the Huck-Finnish ability to see it as if for the first time, and to describe it in all its barbarism. The Kid is Huck Finn and Jim. He is a non-citizen and pariah with the voice of an unschooled boy. His naiveté combines with his appalling experience of life in the American underclass to give even his oddest speculations an oblique resonance: “The Kid wonders if all across America there is some kind of strange invisible radioactive leakage like from high-tension wires or cell phones or road and mall parking lot asphalt that is turning thousands of American men, young and old, of all races, into sex offenders, so that instead of being attracted to grown women their own age they’re attracted to young girls and little children. He worries that it’s an environmentally caused degenerative disease.”
Banks worries that pedophilia is an environmentally caused degenerative disease, too. That’s why he introduces the Professor. This character shows up late one night, after the Kid and his fellow registered sex offenders have been driven away from the causeway by baton-wielding cops and the Kid has crawled quietly back. The Professor inches up to the Kid’s tent and shines a flashlight in his eyes. If the Kid is a study in deprivation, the Professor is a study in excess: a tall and hugely obese man with a mess of gray locks whose pride in life is that he is a registered genius—a member of Mensa and the even-more exclusive Prometheus Society—but who works as a sociologist at the local university, analyzing the causes of homelessness. The Kid doesn’t trust the Professor, who strikes him as a possible molester, but the Professor senses potential in the Kid. He may well prove to be the informant who gets him his longed-for university professorship. Or maybe the Kid will allow him to test his theories about pedophilia.
The Professor becomes a font of uninvited help. He intervenes with the Kid’s case worker. He bankrolls a job for the Kid. He takes the Kid’s dog to the vet. Eventually the Professor persuades the Kid to help him start organizing the residents of the causeway encampment. They create committees, write rules and regulations, arrange for a Porta-Potti. To the Kid’s amazement, a dollop of social order turns the encampment into something like a functioning community, and he finds he enjoys his “empowerment,” as the Professor calls it. The Kid thinks of it as having power over others for the first time in his life.
Both the Kid and the Professor do a great deal of mulling over the Kid’s plight. Their ruminations and occasional conversations lay out thoughts about pedophilia and its causes that Banks seems to have written the novel to explore. We have known since Rule of the Bone, in 1995, Banks’s first foray into Huck Finn territory, that he deplores the effect of modern consumerism on children, the way it sexualizes them in order to sell things to them. This form of internal, domestic “colonization,” as he called it in an article published at the same time as the novel, is “a crime and a disgrace, an unintended cultural suicide.” It saps children’s moral development and makes them seem less innocent than they are, thereby undermining the distinction that adults ought to be making between themselves and them, a distinction which once served to protect them. The story of Rule of the Bone’s Chappie Dorset, a sexually abused fourteen-year-old runaway, Banks continued in that article, “is my attempt to dramatize in fiction what seems to me to be the main unacknowledged tragedy of our time … and our strange denial of any responsibility for having done it.”
In Lost Memory of Skin, one of these “colonized” children has grown up, barely, to become a predatory adult, sort of. In any case, he inhabits an underground world shaped entirely by the wider society’s denial of responsibility for how he has turned out. The Kid and his kind are human refuse, cast out and invisible, except when their existence becomes intolerable and they have to be driven elsewhere. The Professor seems to lay out the message of this novel—its rejection of our rejection of sexual molesters—when he tells his wife that “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, the controls over their behavior, have been somehow damaged or compromised.” The Professor continues: “We cast them out, we treat them like pariahs, when in fact we should be studying them up close, sheltering them and protecting them from harm, as if indeed they were fellow human beings who have inexplicably reverted to being chimpanzees or gorillas…”
Lost Memory of Skin reads as if it might be, in part, the report of the Professor’s investigation into this interesting social phenomenon. The narration has a perfunctory quality and a sequential use of the present tense—the Kid does this, then he does that—that give it the clinical tone of a case study. The novel also manifests what you might call the allegorical impulse. The Kid and the Professor are types as much as individuals (later there will be a Writer), and they are often called upon to serve as mouthpieces. Most of the time Banks manages to keep them in character as they flesh out his theories, but occasionally the urge to preach makes him push the bounds of credibility. As the Kid struggles to achieve self-knowledge—a remarkably moving process—he brings a healthy if untutored moral sensibility and an impressive amount of empathy to the question of how he got into this mess. (A Bible he chances upon and reads for the first time affords him highly original insights into such things as power and sin.) Still, it’s hard to believe that this indifferently taught, profoundly isolated boy could formulate opinions of himself that would sound quite so much as if an avuncular newspaper columnist had written them, as he occasionally does.
There is another conversation going on in Lost Memory of Skin, somewhat more buried yet more alluring than the sociological disquisition carried on at the novel’s surface. The novel’s true fascination is with monstrosity: how it comes into being, what it expresses, and for whom it does the expressing. There’s the iguana, of course, who serves as the Kid’s and his peers’ mascot, the externalization of their sense of their own grotesqueness. There’s the Kid himself, a monster by definition—he’s a registered sex offender, after all—but also, even before his arrest, a Frankenstein figure, the freakishly inept but intelligent and sensate product of the spiritually deformed creature who bore and raised him. He fled his cave, his dark bedroom at the back of her house, in order to get himself seen by somebody. That the somebody he chose to have see him was underage, and that he could only imagine connecting with her through the rituals of pornography, is the natural outcome of his education, or lack thereof.
Then there’s the Professor, who turns out to be the most monstrous character of all. The best swerves in Lost Memory of Skin come when the story abandons the miraculously sound but faintly predictable mind of the Kid and enters the Professor’s. It is a very scary place. Everything the Kid lacked as a child, the Professor had: loving parents, education, physical stature. But the parents were unhappy; vaguely liberal Northerners stranded in the backward South (his father kept the books for a mining company that used the free labor of convicts), they cultivated their large, intellectually gifted son like a “homegrown exotic orchid” so that he could express for them their own sense of difference from the “garden-variety flowers” that grew all around them. They overfed him and plied him with knowledge until “his oversize body and wildly praised and publicized precocity simultaneously alienated him from everyone and at the same time made him feel superior to everyone, even to his parents.” The unappealing product of this upbringing—the young Professor reminds me of the spoiled children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl’s great indictment of modern childrearing—serves as his parents’ mascot, their iguana. He has been made to embody their deepest, darkest sense of themselves. He even looks a little reptilian. He also has enormous pathos, for from earliest childhood he sees what he has become and suffers terribly from it.
The Professor’s adult life turns out to have been even stranger than his childhood, and when it comes time for him to be unmasked, his undoing threatens to undo all the progress the Kid has made. Or maybe it will give the Kid the chance to come into his own. The novel founders a bit as it picks its way through all the plots and counterplots that the Professor may or may not be involved in, and their complicated consequences for the Kid, though it remains interesting to watch the Kid’s ever keener mind try to unravel them. But Banks was right to let this basilisk of a man hijack his novel. For one thing, the Professor is a gratuitously weird, Falstaffian presence, a gift to any novelist. For another, he’s an even more alarming personification of the American Child than the Kid. Stuffed to the gills with food, information, and an unearned sense of superiority: we all know little monsters who fit this description. We are growing more of them by the day. And with their shame, pain, and unstoppable hunger, they have the power to do as much damage as sex offenders.
Judith Shulevitz is the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time (Random House).