One of Russell Banks’s greatest gifts is his ability to write about large issues — historic, cultural, socioeconomic — while presenting the particular dilemmas and failings of sharply drawn characters. In “Lost Memory of Skin,” his latest novel, he starts from the well-documented situation of a group of sexual offenders living under the causeway from Miami to Miami Beach because they are required by law to stay 2,500 feet from any place they might encounter children. Banks moves the action of his novel to the fictional city of Calusa and focuses on a young resident of a similar community of released sex criminals. Barely an adult, “the Kid,” as he’s known, is addicted to Internet pornography, which led him to virtual contact with an underage girl. When he tried to meet her, he was arrested and jailed.

Among the many things deliberately left unresolved here is whether “brandi18,” the putative 14-year-old, is a real person or part of a sting operation. With this and other open-ended aspects of the story, Banks raises one of the novel’s underlying questions: In the Internet age, an age when any of us can alter our identity, be anyone we want to be, what is real? What is false? And what do these options mean for us socially, spiritually?

The Kid, raised at best neglectfully, has been watching porn for hours every day since he was 11. He has a kind of expertise in every possible expression of human sexuality, yet the only flesh he has ever touched sexually is his own. Banks imagines beautifully and painfully the emptiness and boredom driving the Kid’s addiction, and the emptiness and boredom resulting from it. Naturally, life under the causeway after his arrest and jail time offers only more of the same.

Enter “the Professor,” a grotesquely overweight sociologist who says he wants to interview the Kid for his research on homelessness. Then he wants to organize the motley band under the causeway; ultimately, he wants to “cure” the Kid. His shifting intentions and conflicting stories about his own life expand on many of the ideas Banks is playing with here about what’s real and what’s not. The Professor and the Kid exist at opposite ends of Banks’s spectrum: The Kid insistently denies his assigned identity as a sexual offender; the Professor energetically invents multiple versions of himself.

When one element of the Professor’s past comes to knock threateningly on the door of his present, he has a story ready to tell the Kid about what it means. But several other possible explanations also emerge, and Banks chooses to leave the truth of this matter — and others — unresolved. What we do know is that the Professor is finally not “real” — in the sense that he doesn’t understand himself, that he won’t acknowledge his humanity, his guilt for whatever it is he’s done.

The difficulty for the reader is that too much else about the Professor is unresolved, a good deal of it seemingly unintentionally. The man is a genius, we’re told; others are “astounded by his mental acuity and linguistic clarity.” His intelligence is called “amazing” and “unusual.” Yet he says or thinks nothing truly extraordinary. He seems to know a good deal about this and that — the Pedal-Pinna reflex (!), the page and paragraph numbers of the statute defining sexual abuse in the second degree in Alabama — but he seems thick about other things. His presence allows Banks to speak in his professorial voice about some of the social issues he wants to raise, and this is clearly useful to him, but perhaps not the most compelling way for us to encounter these ideas.

There is confusion to a lesser degree in the presentation of the Kid’s character. At the book’s beginning, Banks uses a nearly unpunctuated, ungrammatical interior monologue for him; later, though, he’s quite articulate. He’s described as being barely able to read or write, but he’s able to imagine a Stevensonian version of life on a pirate ship, to dream about the migration of indigenous peoples in the swamp he briefly inhabits. He picks up a King James Bible, and its language“reminds him of the dialogue in certain video games and movies about Vikings that are set in medieval times.”

But Banks needs this reading of the Bible to give the novel its overarching metaphors, articulated by the Kid in the spiritually triumphant last pages. Here, he finally sees and accepts that he is like the others under the causeway. He understands what’s “real” about himself: his fallen state. “He had been made human,” he realizes, by his exposure, his arrest, and now can begin the process of becoming “wholly alive.”

Banks is in Flannery O’Connor/Graham Greene territory here, trying to convey the spiritual using materials of the ordinary. For anyone working this way, there is the temptation to make too explicit the allegorical meaning of events, and Banks succumbs to that temptation. In these last pages, the Kid speculates, “Maybe the Internet is the Snake and pornography is the forbidden fruit.” He condemns himself: “Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.” He carefully lays out the steps in his path to redemption, as though we couldn’t figure all this out. And it’s possible we wouldn’t have, given our shifting grasp on the Kid’s identity.

Still, like so much else Banks has written, this novel is ambitious and often compelling — a book that works with important ideas about the way we’re reshaping our lives in the Internet age, while being reshaped ourselves, spiritually, sexually.

Miller’s most recent novel is “The Lake Shore Limited.”


By Russell Banks

Ecco. 416 pp.