In his 1996 novel, Rule of the Bone, Russell Banks — also the author of The Sweet Hereafter, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Cloudsplitter, and many others — charted the coming of age of a feral child of American suburbia. In his new novel, Lost Memory of Skin, Banks picks up the thread of another modern American reject, this one a post-adolescent fresh out of jail, "a childlike adult," said Banks, "in cruel ways infantilized by the world that surrounds him even as it abandons him, leaving him to his own busted devices."
Branded a sex offender for showing up at the home of a fourteen-year-old he met in an Internet chat room — beer and sexy stuff in his backpack — the appropriately monikered "Kid" is, when we meet him, living under a bridge with other sex offenders of all stripes, one of the only places in his south Florida community that is, as legally required, 2,500 feet from the places children gather. Though sex criminals, like all subcultures, have a caste system, the men under the bridge don't talk explicitly about their crimes, so the reader ends up with sympathy for their hopeless situations — especially that of the Kid, whose only authentic love comes from pets (an iguana, a mangy dog, and an African Grey parrot) and whose main crime appears to have been stupidity.
Banks, who will read at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Wednesday, Oct. 5, was tempted to delve into this seamy underworld by "the fact that it's such a mystery to me," he said. "One writes fiction in order to understand what can't be understood any other way, by entering into the subjective experience of someone who is different, who is the other. The lives of these men is, for me, almost the ultimate other, and is therefore almost — almost — unknowable to me." Compared to the story of Bone, The Rule of the Bone's protagonist, "the Kid's story is darker, stormier, in some ways less optimistic. Perhaps in the decade since I wrote Rule of the Bone the world has become darker, and I've become less optimistic."
And yet, after a decade of books examining the Civil War and abolitionism (Cloudsplitter); Sixties radicalism and expatriatism (The Darling); class warfare and soapy intrigue among the wealthy in 1930s upstate New York (The Reserve); and many other historical stops, with Lost Memory of Skin Banks has returned to the dismal present and its particular brand of misspent youth.
"I guess in some ways I'm revisiting my own childhood and youth," he explained, "and saying to myself, 'There but for the grace of something inexplicable go I.'" Banks doesn't think these characters come to him particularly naturally — he wasn't abused or abandoned the way they were — but he does hear their voices pretty clearly when writing them. "I feel deeply moved by the plight of adolescents, near-adolescents and post-adolescents, people caught between childhood and adulthood temporarily and sometimes permanently — and fear that they represent the plight that we face as a society, all of us, trapped between childhood and adulthood. It's as if people like Bone and the Kid are the canaries in the mineshaft." 7:30 p.m., free. 510-704-8222 or MrsDalloways.com