Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks, Clerkenwell Press, £12.99, 432 pages

The way a society treats its criminals is often cited as a mark of civilisation. But does that rule apply to sex offenders? Russell Banks’ troubling and in places surprisingly funny new novel, Lost Memory of Skin, begins in the modern-day equivalent of a leper colony. In the Florida city of Calusa – a fictionalised version of Miami – a band of homeless men has settled beneath a motorway causeway. All have been convicted of sex crimes and as a consequence are banned from living within 2,500ft of children. In a densely populated metropolis, that leaves only the airport, the swamp and this subterranean shanty town. The waterside setting looks out to the city’s beachfront hotels. Neon signs wink tauntingly in the distance. They might as well be on the moon as far as the bridge’s troglodyte residents are concerned.

Banks, whose 13 novels to date include Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, introduces us to this underworld through the eyes of its youngest member, the Kid, a skinny, 22-year-old army dropout. He shares his patch with Iggy, a giant iguana, part pet, part guard dog. With its two penises (yes, really), ability to blend into the background and reptilian brain, the lizard has more than a little in common with its creepy human neighbours. Yet the tenderness with which the Kid treats the animal – dumpster-diving at the local organic health store to provide the creature with green leaves – suggests that his capacity for love or empathy hasn’t been entirely erased. What did the Kid do to be made to join this electronically tagged legion of the damned? The reader must wait to find out.

The tale Banks sets out to tell is one of a wider loss of innocence than just the Kid’s. Little by little, we learn his back story: no father, neglected by his mother in favour of her revolving boyfriends, filling the lonely hours viewing pornography on his computer. Banks is too nuanced a writer to make his central character simply a study in victimhood, and the Kid isn’t one for self-pity, which would smack of weakness. Yet there is more than a touch of “j’accuse” about the book. It points its finger at a society that has mistaken the easy gratification of the virtual world with reality, skin flicks for actual skin.

Banks seems to see the internet as a triumph for the id over the super-ego, an echo chamber for desires and fears that would once have been internalised and repressed. The Kid is not the only one in thrall to lurid online fantasies. While the city’s flesh-and-blood sex offenders live out of sight, their names, addresses and photographs are posted online for all to see. When does sensible risk management become an irrational obsession with bogeymen?

Banks finds a mouthpiece for some of these ideas in the book’s other protagonist, an obese sociologist with a brain the size of a planet, who is apparently conducting a study into homeless sex offenders and who sees in the Kid a chance to put his theories about rehabilitation into practice.

The Professor, as he is known, argues that the men under the bridge are, “like the canary in the mine shaft”, simply the first people to respond to a wider change in society, “as if their social and ethical immune systems …have been somehow damaged or compromised”. Should we fail to establish what is causing age-old taboos to break down, he adds, “we’ll all become sex offenders”.

The Professor’s deeds are less high-minded than his words. Charismatic but also condescending and manipulative, he lies about his past and wins the Kid’s attention by promising him a rare copy of an old treasure map – supposedly Captain Kidd’s but, in fact, photocopied from the front of an old copy of Treasure Island. The unquenchable desires of the men he writes about find a parallel in his own insatiable craving for junk food, which he devours nightly, blocking the light shining from inside the open fridge door. To the final page, he remains an enigma.

Everything about the Professor is larger than life, and the theatricality of the character, combined with his habit of grandstanding, occasionally totters into caricature. The same can’t be said of the Kid. The novel sings brightest when it gives itself up to his guileless stream-of-consciousness, and is at its most persuasive and tender as it charts his growing self-awareness.

The final sweep of this book alludes heavily to the story of the Fall, as the Kid strikes out for the snake-infested Florida swampland. Dark and tangled like the Everglades themselves, this final act contains writing of almost religious intensity as the Kid approaches some kind of redemption: “The Kid wonders for the first time if there is a way for him to give that two-dimensional image on the screen a third dimension and become wholly alive.” In Banks’s hands, he really doesn’t have to worry.

Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival

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