The Memory of Skin (Ecco, 2011) glows with the beautiful and well-wrought prose of Russell Banks. He evokes setting in an effective, forceful manner, so that you envision the surroundings of his characters. And he’s especially good with characters, especially the two main characters of this novel, one a young man recently released from prison where he had been sentenced for trying to seduce a young girl, the other an enormous professor of social science whose history is a monstrous concatenation of contradictions that might or might not be fabricated. He reminded me of Ignatius J. Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces, though he is not so amusing as Ignatius.
Banks delineates these characters so that we understand and, to an extent, sympathize with them. But he does not fully explain them. The Professor in particular enters and exits the novel followed by a number of significant questions and mysteries. He may be a self-created liar, or he may be a deep cover CIA operative who is the focus of a federal manhunt.
In the Kid, the unsuccessful seducer of an under-age teenage girl, Banks offers an amazingly intricate and full portrait of abject isolation—social, mental, familial, physical. The Kid was formerly a porno addict and chronic masturbator with no social life or personal connections beyond his mother, with whom he lived. When he was arrested for his crime, his mother disowned him. Released from prison, he wears an ankle bracelet and cannot legally live anywhere within 1000 feet of children, so he lives with other former sex-addicts and vagrants underneath a bridge, where they are all subject to occasional raids by the local police. His arrest and imprisonment has cured him of his interests in pornography and masturbation, but he still feels an attraction to young girls. The only social connections he makes are with a few of the men under the bridge. Most of them cannot hold the few jobs they manage to find. The Professor takes a professional interest in these people, and in the Kid himself. Does his interest stem from his recognition that the young man might be fairly intelligent, from sympathy for his plight, from a homoerotic attraction, or from his own possible past as a pederast—Banks implies without confirming these possibilities.
The Kid at one point seeks to heighten his separation from the world by retreating to the isolation of a nearby swamp. He also is capable of some terrific lies, some of which he admits to, and all of which are obvious to the reader.
The Kid is the sort of character we should find repellent and contemptible, for whom we might feel isolation and social castigation are not adequate enough a punishment given his crime—the one he never commits. Yet Banks forces us to see him as a three-dimensional human soul.