Russell Banks’ new novel tackles taboo topics of sex offenders, Internet porn addiction and the ephemeral line between reality and fantasy
From the window of his Miami Beach condo, acclaimed author Russell Banks looks out onto Biscayne Bay, where a tunnel causeway stretches from mainland Florida to the barrier island on which he lives. At first a seemingly ordinary bridge spanning a stunning view, the causeway began to capture his imagination several years ago when it attracted the attention of the media: living beneath the bridge was a modern-day leper colony of convicted sex offenders.
Due to a 2005 city of Miami ordinance that banned convicted sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, bus stops—or anyplace where children congregate—the Julia Tuttle Causeway was the only place in the city proper that these men could call home. So what began with a few tents quickly expanded into a shanty town complete with makeshift toilets, kitchenettes and gasoline-powered generators to charge residents’ cell phones along with the GPS tracking devices many of them were required to wear around their ankles.
“I became mystified by this phenomenon,” says Banks, talking on the telephone from New York, where the two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee lives during the six months of the year when he’s not living in Florida. “A ripple started going out from this situation. I started thinking about the legal structure, the unintentional consequences.”
Questions began to form in his head: What is the psychology that drives a sex offender? How can there be a kid who simply did something stupid and is now living beside a serial rapist? How do these people become social pariahs? He did what novelists do to answer them: he began to write.
The result is “Lost Memory of Skin” (Ecco, September 2011), a novel that explores the life of “the Kid,” a porn-addicted 22-year-old virgin whose brief online relationship with a 14-year-old girl lands him in jail after he shows up to her house with a backpack filled with condoms, KY jelly, pornographic movies and beer. Marooned beneath a south Florida causeway in a colony of other convicted sex offenders, the Kid becomes the study subject of an obese sociology professor with secrets of his own. As the professor tries to help the Kid, the two form an unlikely bond that eventually tips the power scales between the two—and forces the Kid to decide on a moral course of action.
Banks will appear at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 4, when he will read from “Lost Memory of Skin,” sign books, and answer readers’ questions.
One of the most accomplished contemporary American novelists, Banks has never shied away from difficult topics such as family violence, race relations, poverty and teen runaways. But in the author’s latest book, which is his seventeenth work of fiction, he has tackled a topic which to many may seem particularly taboo.
“I tend to use my writing as a way of exploring what I don’t understand, as a way of penetrating something I can’t get at otherwise,” says Banks. “A colony of sex offenders under a bridge—I have a big question mark over my head and it draws me. The only way I can understand is to sit down and try to write about it.”
In this case, though, before he started writing he did extensive research—both on the Internet and in libraries, reading interviews, studying the legal context, and perusing psychological and sociological studies of sex offenders and pedophiles. He also did investigative on-the-ground journalism, visiting the Tuttle Causeway settlement and hearing residents’ stories, as well as spending time in the Everglades (one of the important settings in the story).
“I also used my imagination throughout,” adds the author, “which is why I named the city Calusa and changed all other place names—so that the story wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the locale.”
As the morally complex tale began to unfold, the characters began to emerge for Banks.
“There are people down there who aren’t guilty of terrible crimes,” he says. “The consequences seem extraordinary for some people. I could imagine easily a situation, like the Kid and I started reading, about situations where people got entrapped online. You’ve seen that show To Catch a Predator—some of them are just dopey; some are clearly sociopaths. We tend to think in black and white. We don’t see shades of grey. We don’t see complexity.”
And thus the Kid was born—in some ways dopey and innocent (he’s never even kissed a girl), in many ways a victim of the abuses and neglect of his childhood. Immersed in the story, it’s easy to see how a person like the Kid could find escape from loneliness and pain by submerging himself into an online fantasy screen-world until eventually real-time and online become indiscernible from one another.
“Once I got into this material, I found there must be a connection between (sex offenders and) pornography and Internet addiction,” says Banks. “It got me thinking about the grey zone that exists between fantasy and reality for many more people today. In the past, there was a clearer line between the two. With the Internet and ease of access to porn, that line begins to get fuzzy. People easily step across that line from reality to fantasy without thinking about it.”
With the current generation of adults who have grown up with the Internet as a prominent factor in their lives, Banks says he feels that the need for real human contact has broken down—with objectification of the human body on the screen turning into something akin to consumer ads.
“It’s a lost memory,” he says. “We don’t even remember what it was like to have a real connection to the body. There’s something scary and dark about that.”
For Banks, the only way to get to the heart of such morally challenging issues is to write about them.
“You really have to take your ego out of it and look at another human being’s life with compassion and understanding—and at the same time try not to sentimentalize it,” he explains. “It’s very hard to understand another human being, to get into their head—but fiction allows that. I get into someone’s head I otherwise can’t understand.”
Perhaps the Kid himself says it best when he’s talking to another character in the book who happens to be a writer: “Is this what writers do all the time, sit around asking themselves questions that can’t be answered?” he asks, to which the writer responds, “Yeah. And when they can’t answer them they write about them.”
Russell Banks will read from “Lost Memory of Skin,” participate in a Q&A and sign copies of the book at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 423-0900. Photo: Nancie Battaglia