Florida has been called America’s heart of darkness, a descriptor mentioned in a book I just finished, The Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks. The comparison with Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s novel chronicling a journey in the uncivilized Congo, is still apt — modern Florida is a scary, fascinating place, full of terrors joyful, nightmarish and mind-numbing, which is perhaps why it so often serves as the setting for terrific books. Along with The Lost Memory of Skin, I’d add Swamplandia! by Karen Russell to the category. Reading the books one after the other was an interesting, serendipitous exercise.
The Lost Memory of Skin chronicles a few days’ existence of “the Kid,” a young, not-too-bright convicted sex offender living on the muggy streets of a Miami-like city. The Kid’s life is harrowing and complex. He must contend with living under a causeway with a bunch of other exiled sex offenders while navigating a legal, social and cultural system murkier than any African river from Heart of Darkness. How will he, if at all, overcome the odds?
Skin’s point-of-view is two-fold — first from the Kid’s, and also from a sociologist researching the Kid, known only as the Professor. They provide different viewpoints to understand the issue both from the offender’s perspective and that of our society at large. Only briefly does Banks cross over into preachy exposition, via the Professor, in an attempt to make us understand the Kid’s circumstances. The Kid comes across as a somewhat sympathetic figure, a fully developed person, just as some sex offenders are in real life, despite what we’d like to believe. Banks shows us the Kid is lonely but not evil or without love – he cares for pets, taking in an iguana, a dog and a chatty parrot. He seems more of a hapless product of his environment, one in which pornography of the most illegal kind is only a click away for anyone. By the time the Kid finds his way into the real swamp, the heart of darkness, we are relieved. The swamp – with its invasive, deer eating Burmese pythons and mosquito swarms – seems quaint compared to the Florida streets or even the Kid’s childhood bedroom. I found myself hoping he’d stay put, and not move back to the causeway, fraught with its urban dangers and temptations.
By the end of the book, the plot has turned from an interesting novel with an intriguing scenario – how do castigated Florida sex offenders make ends meet? – to a murder mystery/thriller. The pace is fast and riveting, if at times a little too rapid. (The Kid gets fired from his job, loses his best friend and kicked out of his encampment, all on the same day.) Because of how human he made the Kid feel, I would be curious to see how Banks might write from the perspective of another character in the book – a state senator turned sex offender, who Banks hints committed crimes far more heinous than the Kid’s, and who is hard not to despise each time he appears in the book. What’s his story? Do we feel more comfortable with him living the completely unlivable life of a convicted sex offender?
Then, when you pick up Swamplandia!, keep the Kid in front of mind when the novel’s protagonist, Ava Bigtree, encounters another intentionally vaguely named character, the Bird Man. Ava, also a product of absentee (but loving) parents, lives on a former wildlife-based amusement park on a mangrove island in Southern Florida with her teen siblings and widowed father, who is often back on the mainland trying to find new ways of supporting the family. Because of the remoteness of her home, Ava lacks access to modern temptations like the internet, but that doesn’t mean she stays out of trouble as she grows up. She too embarks on a journey through the vast Florida swamp, trying to find her runaway sister. While we were relieved when the Kid sought out the swamp, we feel the opposite for naive Ava as she sets out on her quest. Waiting for her is the Bird Man, who I see the Kid becoming as he reaches middle age, still lurking in the swamp. Russel’s Swamplandia! doesn’t tackle any big political issues (though it does touch upon the shifting economy in Florida), but it is is more mystical and dreamy, and less gloomy. It’s an easier read, since Ava isn’t constantly assaulted with obstacles like the Kid.
While it might be easy to peg the Kid as the criminal and Ava as the victim, both books will make you ponder that assumption, and at what point did the Kid cross over from victim, to criminal, or did he ever, really?