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Bookmark: New novel tackles tough subject

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

Enter the Professor. This bearded, obese, self-absorbed and mysterious academic visits the ragtag community under the causeway and is immediately drawn to the Kid. The Professor is the observer quoted above, the one who coined "American untouchables."

He has his own dirty little secrets, but has managed to stuff them behind a bland wall of scholarly objectivity.

"This could turn into a long-term project," the Professor muses upon first meeting the Kid, "and could eventually produce important data and proposals for dealing with both sexual offenders and the problem of homelessness."

Their destinies intertwine in spectacular and unpredictable — and frankly implausible — ways, but Banks, despite his reputation as a hard-nosed realist bent on giving us a straightforward and unvarnished portrait of life, is really not concerned overmuch with realism here. Or perhaps he's concerned with an offshoot of magical realism.

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Because "Lost Memory of Skin" is more like an inside-out fairy tale than a documentary, more of a fable than a sociological report about the plight of homeless sex offenders. Unlike Banks' two best novels, the epic "Cloudsplitter" (1998), his brilliant retelling of the John Brown story, and "Affliction" (1989), a taut family saga about vengeance and culpability, "Lost Memory of Skin" feels — even given its grim subject matter — looser, and it seems less of a moral lesson than a haunting yarn.

The novel includes some of the loveliest and most vivid descriptions of the natural world that Banks has ever written, descriptions made all the more striking by their juxtaposition with the tattered lives of the Kid and his posse beneath the causeway:

"It's dusk, and a half moon has risen in the southwest and hangs like a silver locket over the Bay. An offshore wind riffles the palms and palmettos, flips the leaves of the live oaks onto their gray backsides and blows the stink of the sewage treatment plant away from Anaconda Key …"

There is also a harrowing scene of an onrushing hurricane through which the Professor drives. A large hunk of the book takes place on a houseboat in a large swamp.

"Lost Memory of Skin" is too long, and Banks lets too many questions just hang there; frustration lurks for readers who decide to make this journey.

But for all of its flaws, it is also one of those rare, strange, category-defying fictions that grabs hold of you in the same way that the iguana, early in the story, sinks its teeth into the tender flesh of the Kid's hand. It's hard to shake it off.

And even when you do, it leaves a mark.

jikeller@tribune.com

Twitter: @litkell

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