Russell Banks writes the life of a sex offender

Russell Banks
After spending half a century writing fiction Russell Banks takes on the difficult topic of sex offenders in his new novel "Lost Memory of Skin."
MPR image/Euan Kerr

In 50 years of writing fiction, Russell Banks has told the stories of many less-than-perfect people. For his latest novel "Lost Memory of Skin" he takes on perhaps his most troubling character: a young sex offender.

Banks said he started the book to write about one individual, but came away worried about an entire generation.

The author lives half the year in Miami. From his window there he looks out on the Bay of Biscay and the causeway that leads to Miami Beach. Banks said about four years ago the Miami paper revealed there was a colony of convicted sex offenders living under the causeway.

"Because they were prohibited by law from living within 2,500 feet of wherever children might gather, they couldn't live anywhere in the city," Banks said.

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"So they were being dropped off by the police, by the parole officers and so forth and had set up a kind of shantytown underneath this causeway on the edge of a bay on a kind of concrete island."

"I realize I am really dealing with a taboo subject here in many ways, and a subject that most people would really just not think about."

While the men were universally shunned, Banks realized there were many kinds of offenders thrown together in this forced community.

"There were psychopathic serial rapists living alongside some poor old drunk who may have got busted for indecent exposure because he was urinating in a parking lot at 3 a.m., or a kid who was over 18 having had sex with his girlfriend who was under 18 and got busted for statutory rape," Banks said. "All the different kind of sex offenders lumped together as pariahs, and I just started imagining one of those young kids."

He began researching, and writing, and then developing the story a 22-year-old self-described Internet porn addict, known simply as the Kid. He's served time after trying to meet an underage girl he met in a chat room.

The Kid is living under a causeway in a town which may or may not be Miami, with an assortment of other offenders. He is approached by a man he calls the Professor, a local academic who wants to study life in this outcast society. The Kid sees this may be a way to improve his situation, but as often happens in a Banks story, things do not work out as expected.

Banks said he learned a lot in writing the novel, but one of his biggest concerns became how the internet has changed how many people, and in particular young people experience the physical side of love.

"How our most intimate connection to each other, to other human beings, is being being relegated to the internet and depersonalized through pornography," he said. "And I began to wonder if there wasn't a whole generation growing up for whom there was a lost memory of skin in some way."

Banks said he's practiced now at entering the minds of his characters, but something happened during the writing of the novel which he had never experienced before. He invented someone who blocked him. The Shyster is a disgraced lawyer, a sociopath disbarred after multiple convictions. He's in the story, and he's still a mystery to Banks.

"I don't know," Banks said. "I don't know quite what to make of it to be perfectly honest with you. It has puzzled me and I am still pondering it now months and months after finishing the book, saying 'Boy, I couldn't cross that barrier. What's that all about? Is that about me or is it about a certain type of human being?"

One thing Banks said he didn't think about as he wrote was how the book might be received. Like many writers, he said he initially writes for an audience of one: himself. Now he knows he's likely to meet some resistance.

"I realize I am really dealing with a taboo subject here in many ways, and a subject that most people would really just not think about," he said. "And when they do think about it they kind of go blind and deaf, and they don't want to reason about it in any way, most people."

To those who say he is trying to justify or even glorify sex offenders, Banks said he's just exploring a subject by telling a story.

After the hard work of creating the Kid and his cohorts for four years, Russell Banks is ready to move on to a lighter subject. Maybe. He's considering a tale of obsessive love, the kind of overwhelming passion that most people only experience a couple of times in their lives if they are lucky.

"Or unlucky depending on how you want to look at it," Banks said. "And I think I'd like to write a short, intense novel about someone who is absolutely madly in love, and really screws his life up as a result," he laughed.

In other words a classic Russell Banks story.