Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Life under the bridge: The Lost Memory of Skin

Pedophiles are high on the list of things that we, as a society, fear and hate. States are passing stricter and stricter laws that carry harsher sentences and lifetimes of punishment. In one very well-publicized instance, it led to a colony of sex offenders forming under a Florida bridge. The law stated that sex offenders couldn't reside within 2500 feet of schools, parks, daycare centers, or similar places that attract a lot of children, and the bridge was one of the few places that met the criteria.

That bridge inspired Russell Banks' new novel, "Lost Memory of Skin." A young sex offender, known only as The Kid, is struggling to build some sort of life for himself under the bridge. After a raid, he meets The Professor, a sociologist interested whose interest in studying the community quickly crosses the line into actively trying to help The Kid and the other denizens of the bridge make things better for themselves. But The Professor has a past, too, that ultimately catches up to him (and no, it's absolutely not what you're imagining).

While child molestation is one of the worst crimes someone can commit, I've long felt that as a society, we're entirely too hysterical about it. And given the devastating consequences of it, that's a difficult stance to pull off. But we've managed it. People see them lurking everywhere, in pretty much anyone who so much as looks at a child they don't know. Seventeen-year-old boys are forced to register for life for receiving "child porn" sent to them by a classmate. Nineteen-year-old boys are stamped with the sex offender tag for having sexual contact with girls three or four years younger than them. The outcome doesn't even matter. On the Free Range Kids blog, I have seen comments from people who grew up, married the guy when they were of age, and have children with him, yet he's unable to attend their school events or get involved in their activities, all because of something he did with his now-wife years ago when they happened to be on the wrong side of an arbitrary age line.

So I viewed this novel, of course, as a scathing commentary on all of that. Banks did an excellent job of walking a fine line, knowing that many people would have little or no sympathy for The Kid. He made him not exactly likeable, but somehow sympathetic anyway. It's ambiguous just how much of a danger to society The Kid might be. It's more that he's simply not very bright, and not very social. He grew up without much of a home life. Around the age of 10, he discovered porn, and that was pretty much all he did for the next several years until going to basic training in the Army. I won't get into the exact nature of how The Kid came to commit a sex crime, but that story is rather pathetic, too.

Overall, this is a terrific novel, and it has a lot in it. I'd be interested to see what other people think of the book. I'm glad to see someone willing to take on such a controversial and highly charged issue. It's one that's not going away any time soon.