In the America of Russell Banks’s novels, men risk ruin to buy a new speedboat. A man who punches his wife tells himself he’s not actually a wife beater. Drunk driving is just one of those ‘little things’, but speaking French is not allowed. A paedophile rapist starts crying when his stepson turns him down, and a schemer with a ‘system for beating the system’ offs himself in a Cadillac he can’t afford; when his brother discovers the body, the ‘neatly typed’ suicide note reads: ‘I’m a failure.’
Banks once told an interviewer he would have been ‘stabbed to death in the parking lot outside a bar in Florida’ if he hadn’t started writing fiction. Talk of the road not taken is easy to hear as a boast, but his life story makes clear that he was the sort of man who might have met his end shortly after closing time. Banks was born in 1940 and grew up in the mill town of Barnstead, New Hampshire. His abusive father, a plumber, abandoned the family when Banks was 12. Banks was too bright to be kept away from college, but too bullish to see it through. After eight weeks at Colgate University, he dropped out. The plan was to volunteer with Castro’s army, which was then on the move in Cuba. Banks hitchhiked south from New York: ‘I only got as far as Miami,’ he told the Paris Review. ‘By that time Castro was marching into Havana and didn’t need me anymore.’ He moved to a Florida trailer park, worked for a time in a department store, then returned to New England to apprentice himself to his father. Somewhere along the way the urge to write intervened and he enrolled at the University of North Carolina.
‘Lawford is one of those towns that people leave,’ Banks writes of the (fictive) setting of Affliction, ‘not one that people come back to.’ Yet he continually returns to those towns, if only to confirm the wisdom of getting away. His best novels are studies of the traumas of American provincial life. There will be a murder or a death or a dislocation, or a surfeit of what Banks calls ‘shit luck’. ‘Fellows of grand beginnings’ will reach bad endings. Banks has dramatised the fate he glimpsed for himself: in Continental Drift, Bob Dubois dies of stab wounds on a Miami side street. That novel won the 1985 John Dos Passos Prize and was nominated for the Pulitzer. The road not taken isn’t pretty, but there’s a lot of mileage in it. ‘This is not Bambi territory,’ a lawyer says in The Sweet Hereafter, the story of a small town convulsed when a school bus crashes. In 1997, Atom Egoyan’s adaptation won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Another film from that year, Affliction, based on Banks’s novel, starred Nick Nolte, who was nominated for an Oscar, and James Coburn, who took one home. The success of these films raised Banks’s profile as literate America’s man in the boondocks. His fiction is set in New England, among the crags. Or in Florida, among the swamps. Sometimes he uses a timeshare or a serendipitous friendship in order to set a few scenes – or more in The Book of Jamaica and Rule of the Bone – in the Caribbean. Liberia, the setting of The Darling, looks like an exception, but only at first glance. As Banks represents it, Liberia, founded by freed slaves funded by white Evangelicals, is ‘the true inheritor of the post-bellum mentality’. Like all his other locales, it lies in the debris field of American affluence.
Whatever the latitude, many aspects remain constant. Rubbish litters the yard, cans of beer propel the small talk, and though incest remains ‘taboo’, as Banks writes in his second novel, Hamilton Stark, it is ‘nevertheless practised extensively, especially in winter’. Banks’s heroes are bound to the local, while everyone else is just passing through. Like Bob Dubois, they have never skied, despite growing up in ski towns. In Hamilton Stark, Banks describes the type: ‘A rube! A citizen of the provinces, a man whose life may well be incapable of offering posterity a single slice of cheese more than his particular sociology! How mere.’ Banks is not a witty writer, but he is alive to the slapstick of his characters. They tend to smoke (Menthols), and to be a bit bigoted (‘grabby Jews’, ‘dumb niggers’). Plot turns elicit a dazed ‘Jesus H. Christ’, and when the action flags the conversation slips self-consciously into neutral – ‘clichés and oddly reflective expressions’. Then there’s the always vital Banksian nomenclature: ‘Ronnie Skeeter’, ‘Dewey Knox’, ‘Hank Lank’, ‘Margie Fogg’. (‘While Jimmy’s been out there ploughing snow, you been tucked in bed ploughing Margie Fogg.’) These speak of a world out of pace with the modern one. As Banks says of the hero of Affliction, ‘Wade was unused to sidewalks.’
Yet Banks has never seemed comfortable mocking the backwardness of rubes, which has led him to write about the sort of rube who is uncomfortable with himself, who, like Bob Dubois, wants ‘something better’. If Banks turned to fiction to keep his inner brute at bay, the brutes he writes about are also soulful types, men who might have found peace in a university library. Instead they usually do something wicked and then disappear or die. Many of them are ex-jocks, and wear the duped scowls of men whose childhood hopes turned out to be childish. ‘All those solitary dumb angry men,’ the narrator of Affliction says, ‘had once been boys with intelligent eyes.’ They are men warped by the dream of what they might have become.
‘Nothing about A. was normal,’ Banks writes of the hero of Hamilton Stark, though there are also moments when A. ‘sounds so ordinary’. It’s a familiar contradiction of provincial life: mute and inglorious on the outside, Miltonian within. As Banks matured this theme remained but was yoked to sleeker storylines. His later novels are plotted with brio: they tend to pivot on an absurd accident (The Sweet Hereafter) or a chain of fateful meetings (The Darling) or a few fateful meetings fortified by a run of absurd accidents (Rule of the Bone). Knotty plots replaced what had been a fondness for metafiction. ‘I’m finding myself tempted to break into A.’s universe,’ the narrator of Hamilton Stark proposes at one point, ‘like some kind of sneaky rapist climbing through a bedroom window.’ But Hamilton Stark and the other early novels sold badly, and Banks came around to the temptations of the front door. By Continental Drift, he had become practically Dreiserian. ‘This is how a good man loses his goodness,’ Bob Dubois thinks near the book’s end, and the long slide into wickedness has been the typical arc of every novel that’s followed.
What’s new about the new novel is that it deals with shame, not sin. The hero of Lost Memory of Skin is a sex offender. He’s a young white male living in Calusa, a fictive city in the Florida Keys modelled on Miami (the name ‘Calusa’ comes from the Indian tribe that once dominated the region). He calls himself ‘a loser’: at five foot five, his frame is as stubby as his personality is threadbare, and he ‘doesn’t have a style’. When he was 21, he went to prison for soliciting sex online from a 14-year-old girl. Now on parole at 22, and still a virgin, he sleeps rough beneath a bayside causeway. Banks dubs him, bluntly, ‘the Kid’. For he’s also a specimen of that familiar Banksian type: the failed adult.
Lost Memory of Skin, like most of Banks’s books, is multivoiced. Opposite the Kid is ‘the Professor’: ‘he had been many things – political radical, civil rights activist, anti-war warrior, drug dealer, independent scholar and student of exotic languages and cultures, hippie seeker of Eastern enlightenment, FBI and CIA informant.’ The most improbable entry on this résumé must be the last: professor of sociology at Calusa State University. The Kissingerian superman has been reborn as a mild careerist: ‘He has tenure but wouldn’t mind acquiring a Distinguished University Professorship.’ To this end, the Professor – who happens also to be ‘morbidly obese’ – begins research on the connection between homelessness and sex offences.
He knows where to start. Among Calusans, the causeway is notorious, because it’s one of the only places that’s far enough from ‘where children regularly gather’ for ex-cons constrained to avoid such areas to bed down. And so dozens of them have, in the ‘damp and the semidarkness’. Their real names, which can be Googled, are abandoned on arrival; all the ‘come-freaks and chubby chasers’ now answer to calls like ‘Ginger’ and ‘Froot Loop’.
The Professor finds the Kid beneath the causeway in the wake of the police raid that opens the book. He wants to interview him and, after some stalling, the Kid agrees. An odd-couple story ensues, with the usual cute friction. The Kid calls the Professor a ‘faggot’, the Professor calls the Kid ‘Huckleberry Finn’, and soon the interviews become a dialogue: the novel is narrated from both viewpoints. The set-up isn’t subtle (they even look like Laurel and Hardy), and the characterisation is often cartoonish. Because the Kid has a porn problem, porn provides a metaphor for everything in his life, from the people he meets to the fall from Eden. And because he is a professor, the Professor can’t form a thought without inflating it into a theory. It’s understandable that he should think about the origins of sexual perversion, but does he have to consider ‘the line of demarcation between inside and outside, between subject and object’?
Sensational plot twists (a hurricane, a hushed confession, a cruise on a houseboat) alternate with set pieces of conversation and introspection, while Florida is consistently seen as a land of endless sleaze. ‘Nobody’s who he says he is,’ the Kid thinks, and, indeed, every character seems to have a stake in child porn or a suspect accent, a diary of depravity tucked away in a briefcase. When it’s finally told, the story of the Kid’s crime is an anti-climax. A coquettish 14-year-old drew him into a chat online, agreed to meet him for a date, then betrayed him to her father and the police. ‘I was mostly hoping, not planning,’ the Kid says of his intentions, and his pitifulness is a kind of innocence: he’s too much of a sad sack to be a real sinner. (Indeed, he is such a sad sack he might be the messiah: there are a host of Christlike touches to his story.) It’s slick operators like the Professor that you have to watch out for. If the Kid no longer has the privacy to keep any secrets, the Professor keeps them to excess. Indeed, the capacity for secrecy has always been a crux of Banks’s fiction. ‘Privacy,’ he wrote in Continental Drift, ‘the secret knowledge of oneself, is, for the poor and the ignorant … what publicity often is for the rich and the educated. It’s their best available way to keep their lives from disappearing into meaninglessness.’ Banks is a novelist of the unstoried: those who lack sustaining, secret self-knowledge, who have internalised their own triviality.
The Kid ends the novel where he began it, in a tent under the causeway. Lost Memory of Skin becomes a test of authorial mettle: can the writer wring a ‘three-dimensional’ man from this self-described ‘total limp dick’? It’s largely a question of style. Whitman, Banks told the Paris Review, ‘was the kind of writer I wanted to be’, and he retains a Whitmanesque effusiveness. He makes lists, he catalogues fauna, he lavishes paragraphs on the contents of landscapes. Sometimes these litanies are resonant, but often they are dreary, suggesting a failure to trim away irrelevance. In the past, such flaws have been partly offset by Banks’s luxurious vernacular touch. Genre has also been forgiving to Banks: ‘gritty epics’ in which peripheral men do reckless things for vague reasons then die violently provide good cover for a careless prose style. At its best, though, his prose delivers the acid taste of American failure. It even produced, in Continental Drift, a very good novel. But it’s ill suited to the task of orchestrating redemption for a character who is so far gone. Much of Lost Memory of Skin has the air of a pep talk, and by the end the Kid seems to have the right attitude. The problem is, like so many of Banks’s heroes, he has none of the right stuff.