Russell Banks Knows Everything Worth Knowing



For the last three weeks I’ve been lost in a feverish bout of flu, and what better companion could I ask for than Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks.

The protagonist is a registered sex offender known as the Kid who, we eventually learn, is a virgin. In fact he’s never even been kissed. His crime was making plans to have sex with a man posing as a 14-year-old girl in a sting operation like the ones you see on “To Catch a Predator.”

As a sex offender, the Kid wears an ankle bracelet location device and he is forbidden to live within 2500 feet of a school or playground or anywhere else that children congregate.

If you draw 2500-foot circles around all such places, there are only two places in Calusa County where he can legally live.

One is under a highway underpass with a colony of other sex offenders, and the other is in the corner of a state park in the Great Penzacola Swamp.

So if you’re drifting in and out of fever dreams, this is the book for you!

I was looking at the blurbs on the cover, all very complimentary, of course, when my eye settled on one from the Washington Post Book World:

“Russell Banks knows everything worth knowing… and much, much more.”

Is that overly effusive praise, or a subtle dig? Either way, it’s pretty funny. And how did it get on the cover? Did the publishers miss the irony, or did they notice it and include it as a wry twist on the usual blurb? My fevered brain could not decide.

In this wonderful book, Russell Banks tells you everything worth knowing about Felchers, teabaggers, obese professors, and the history and geology of southern Florida… and much, much more!

Russell even makes an appearance in person, as a character known as ‘the Writer’ who befriends the Kid and helps him sort out the issues raised by the apparent suicide of the obese professor.

At one point the Kid tells the Writer he doesn’t want him (the Writer) to tell his (the Kid’s) story.

Russell takes the opportunity to poke fun at his reputation as a writer of grim tales.

“Who’d want to read it,” the Writer replies, “Kiddie porn and child molestors, pedophiles and suicidal college professors? Jesus!”

“Besides, I’m just a freelance travel writer, not some kind of investigative journalist or a novelist trying to depress people.”

It is a fact that nothing good has ever happened to a character in a Russell Banks novel since Bob Dubois got a blowjob in Continental Drift, and even then he (Bob Dubois) wasn’t sure if he’d gotten laid or not.

In this (yet another) brilliant book, Banks invites us to remove the titillation factor from the justice system and to discriminate between the Kid, who has done nothing, and another character, the Shyster, who raped prepubescent girls with the connivance of their mothers.

In the interest of full disclosure, Russell Banks is my former father-in-law, who has doted on my fairy princess daughter and given her a vision of her potential as an actress and a writer.

I remember when he took her to a writers’ convention when she was 12 years old, and she told me she’d met a “nice lady” named Judy Blume.

So don’t take my word for it. Just listen to Margaret Atwood: “Russell Banks tackles hard subjects with verve and courage.”

Amen to that. Anyway, now I’m hucking up stuff, and that’s a good sign.