Santa Cruz Good Times

Thursday
Dec 18th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Lost Memory

ae_russelRussell 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.

ae_LostMemoryBanks 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

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Is This a Dream?

A beginner’s guide to understanding and exploring the uncanny world of lucid dreams

 

Giving and Giving, Then Giving Some More

2014 is almost over. Wednesday, Dec. 17, the Jewish Festival of Light, Hanukkah, begins. We are in our last week of Sag and last two weeks of December. Sunday, Dec. 21 is winter Solstice, as the sun enters Capricorn (3:30 p.m. for the west coast). Soon after, the Capricorn new moon occurs (5:36 p.m. for the west coast)—the last new moon of 2014. Sunday morning Uranus in Aries (revolution, revelation) is stationary direct (retro since July 22). Uranus/Aries create things new and needed to anchor the new culture and civilization (Aquarius). We will see revolutionary change in 2015. Capricorn new moon, building-the-personality seed thought, is, “Let ambition rule and let the door to initiation and freedom stand wide (open).” Capricorn is a gate—where matter returns to spirit. But the gate is unseen until the Ajna Center (third eye), Diamond Light of Direction, opens. Winter solstice is the longest day of darkness of the year. The sun’s rays resting at the Tropic of Capricorn (southern hemisphere) symbolize the Christ (soul’s) light piercing the heart of the Earth, remaining there for three days, till Holy Night (midnight Thursday morning). Then the sun’s light begins to rise. It is the birth of the new light (holy child) for the world. A deep calm and stillness pervades the world.The entire planet is revivified, re-spiritualized. All hearts beating reflect this Light. And so throughout the Earth there’s a radiant “impress” (impressions, pictures) given to humanity of the World Mother and her Child. The star Sirius (love/direction) and the constellation Virgo the mother shines above. For gift giving, give to those in need. Give and give and then give some more. This creates the new template of giving and sharing for the new world.

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Stocking Stuffers

The men behind the women of the Kinsey Sicks Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet explain their own special brand of ‘dragtivism,’ and their holiday show at the Rio
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Tramonti Pizza

Why there’s no such thing as too much Italian food in Seabright

 

Guitar or surfboard?

Guitar. The closest thing I ever came to surfing was sliding down a rock hill. Charlie Tweddle, Santa Cruz, Hats and Music

 

Fortino Winery’s Intriguing Charbono

At the opening celebration of the new Santa Clara Wine Trail in August, one of the wineries we visited was Fortino. This is where I first tasted their intriguing estate-grown Charbono—a varietal that is one of the rarest in California, with only 80 acres grown statewide.

 

Beyond the Jar

How Tabitha Stroup has built her rapidly expanding jam empire