A review of Russell Banks' novel "Lost Memory of Skin," the story of a young man and convicted sex offender who is drawn into a half-real, morally ambiguous world. Banks reads Monday at the Seattle Public Library.

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‘Lost Memory of Skin’

by Russell Banks

HarperCollins, 416 pp., $25.99

The Kid lives under a bridge in Calusa, Fla., along with other convicted sex-offenders. Because their probation prohibits them from leaving the county and from living within 2,500 feet of any place children congregate, they can perch on this patch of concrete beneath the freeway or move to a miasmic swamp. Either setting would suit their bleak purgatory until they serve out their parole and can remove their GPS anklets.

None are admirable. Unable to work, go to school, or rent an apartment, none has prospects of becoming so. The Kid has learned to see himself as he is seen: “The papers have taken to calling them the Bridge People which he thinks makes sense in another way because they are a bridge between what passes for normal human beings and animals.”

Russell Banks creates morally complicated characters — his novel of John Brown, “Cloudsplitter,” is a three-dimensional portrait of a man who believed that his slaughter of innocent people was part of his holy mission to end slavery. But in “Lost Memory of Skin” Banks follows today’s pariahs, men whose crimes have made them, in society’s eyes, irredeemable, but who are not dangerous enough to keep behind bars.

The Kid embodies a whole segment of mankind, but he is also an individualized human being. What he shares with his fellow outcasts is a conviction for sexual deviancy. His actual crime, however, was pathetic, inept, and thwarted. Growing up, he was neither abused nor nurtured, and his understanding of human sexuality was gleaned through his addiction to Internet pornography. He knows what the whole range of sexual activity looks like; he has zero grasp of intimacy.

Into the Kid’s underworld lumbers the Professor — well over 6-feet tall, 500 pounds, a university professor of sociology, and as imposing intellectually as physically. As part of his research, he claims, he means to study these outcasts: “Nothing they have done or will do offends or frightens me,” he says. “I view them scientifically. Like lab specimens.”

That’s the scientific approach. Having recently started reading the Bible, the Kid considers another explanation for his fall: “Maybe the Internet is the Snake and pornography is the forbidden fruit because watching porn on the Internet is the first thing the kid remembers lying about.” Still, a psychological rather than a theological explanation would note that part of the initial attraction of the Internet was that it helped distract him from the sound of his mother in the next room having sex with one or another of her very temporary boyfriends.

And the Professor has his own compulsions. His physical bulk is the evidence, which he wears even more conspicuously than the parolees wear their anklets. What begins as the story of the Kid, tangled strands of reality and fantasy, becomes the story of the Professor, who may have worked for various supersecret government agencies, may have been involved in his own repellent sexual transgressions, and may need the Kid as much more than a “lab specimen.” The Kid doesn’t know, can’t know what’s real, and the reader is drawn inexorably into a world where moral ambiguity runs to the core — a place that often looks unsettlingly like the computer-lit place in which the rest of us live.

Here is where Banks’s story becomes more than a mystery enacted in the sewer. When people interact more with online images than with other human beings, how do we untie those knotted strands of reality and fantasy? Banks shows that it is difficult and never conclusive — and that it matters. Really.