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For four years, from 2006 to 2010, there existed in Miami-Dade County, Fla., a bizarre community of sex offenders who lived under a causeway. They were there because ordinances prohibited them from living within 760 metres of schools, daycare centres and anywhere else there might be children. Because the radii of these forbidden zones overlapped nearly everywhere in the county, the causeway was the only place these men could legally exist.

It was a sordid, dirty place full of empty, broken people, which makes it the perfect territory for a writer to explore.

Russell Banks's Lost Memory of Skin is in many ways just what a novel is supposed to be: a fearless journey into a dark world of which most of us are unaware. Relocating the causeway to the fictional city of Calusa, Banks snaps on the gloves and plunges shoulder-deep into the mucky milieu of rapists and child molesters. It's a risky move even from a master craftsman, but if a novel doesn't take some kind of risk, it isn't worth writing. This book may even convince the most cynical postmodernist that the novel as a means of social reform is still alive.

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We view this world from the inside through the eyes of the Kid, a 21-year-old dishonourably discharged army veteran who lives in a tent with a six-foot pet iguana, and from the outside through the Professor, a morbidly obese "genius" who attempts an academic study of the causeway community. Populating a story with unsympathetic characters carries risks of its own. The two never become friends, as neither seems capable of genuine warmth. Instead, they merely use each other for their own ends.

The Kid is not what most of us think of when we conjure up the image of a sex offender. Banks has avoided the obvious temptation of casting him as a victim who has taken on the characteristics of his oppressors. The Kid's urges stem not from a reaction to abuse, but from an addiction to Internet porn, with mildly Oedipal roots. Banks has somehow also steered clear of portraying him as the kind of man parents have nightmares about. He's guilty, certainly, but being arrested seems to have caused a psychic breakthrough, and since then the urges that plagued him have vanished – suggesting that he's not really a pervert after all. The result is that the Kid's struggle is not against himself, but rather the incredibly complicated regulations he must follow to avoid violating the terms of his parole.

Banks raises two questions in his excursion into this First World human garbage dump. The first is whether society has created these monsters, or whether it has simply defined them. I hasten to add that there is no moral ambiguity here. The causeway men, best typified by the disgraced state senator arrested for soliciting sex from two very young girls, are truly revolting. We might pity them, but they arouse no compassion.

The second is what it says about the rest of us that we think simply forcing these people out of sight is any kind of solution. Before an election, the causeway is cleared by a gang of cops, in full view of a gaggle of bused-in reporters. The result of this is simply more brutality, and eventually the offenders drift back, as they were bound to do.

There is little here to uplift, redeem or even entertain. But there is plenty to question. And the images that linger are not of abuse, but rather the disturbing glimpses of how people live on the lowest and most irredeemable level of our society.

THE BEST OF BANKS

Russell Banks is widely regarded as one of the most important writers in contemporary fiction. His best works include:

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Continental Drift (1985) Globalization brings together people from different worlds. Winner of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature.

Affliction (1989) A small-town policeman struggles with inner demons. Adapted as a film starring Nick Nolte and Sissy Spacek.

The Sweet Hereafter (1991) A school-bus accident kills most of a small town's children. Oscar-nominated film adaptation by Atom Egoyan (1997).

Rule of the Bone (1995) The relationship between an American teen and a Rastafarian migrant worker.

Cloudsplitter (1998) The story of abolitionist John Brown. PEN/Faulkner and Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Novelist William Kowalski lives in Nova Scotia.

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