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Bookmark: New novel tackles tough subject

November 03, 2011|By Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune Cultural Critic

The late John Updike once opined that we are all "trapped in solitary confinement inside our own skins."

We can't ever really know what someone else is feeling, no matter how hard we try or how desperately she or he wants us to. Our unique souls are stuffed in our bodies like runty sophomores shoved into school lockers by a bunch of senior bullies, and while we can pound and scream our heads off, nobody's going to hear. Especially not if it's after school has let out.

And in life, it's always after school has let out.

The new novel by Russell Banks, "Lost Memory of Skin" (Ecco), is about identity, isolation and iguanas. It explores some very large and grandiose themes but also functions as a compelling story, the kind that draws you in and makes you care about the characters, even as you realize that you don't have the slightest clue about why they behave as they do.

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The Kid — we don't know his real name and ultimately it doesn't seem to matter, so thoroughly does he disappear into the label — lives under a causeway in Florida, with only a pet iguana to call his own. The Kid is a piece of flotsam mired amid other misfits who have ended up here, a low spot in the world's drain.

The place is "a settlement of men, grim and minimal and squalid but an extension of the city nonetheless as if the city had deliberately colonized this dark corner of itself with its outcasts."

This is the Kid's home because he is a convicted sex offender.

And sex offenders are "pariahs of the most extreme sort, American untouchables, a caste of men ranked far below the merely alcoholic, addicted or deranged homeless," an observer notes. "They were men beyond redemption, care or cure, both despicable and impossible to remove and thus by most people simply wished out of existence."

The Kid's story is drearily familiar. He flirted with a stranger online and set up a date, despite her revelation that she was only 14.

He was caught and prosecuted. Now he can't catch a break because "no one will believe he's innocent of anything. Even of just being alive. He's guilty of that, too. Being alive."

The law requires him to keep away from locations where kids might be present, and that cuts down on a lot of potential real estate. That — and the fact that he's pretty much broke and unemployable.

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