Russell Banks, a writer, poet and part-time Miami resident, is a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award for his recent novel Lost Memory of Skin.
The work is based on the pop-up encampments of pedophiles living under Miami's Julia Tuttle Causeway in 2007.
After moving into a high-rise on Biscayne Bay, the novelist had a view of this strange tent city, one of the few areas open to sex offenders due to a law that bans them from living within 2,500 feet of children.
"I could see it from the terrace and wondered, what were the implications of this, legally and morally? Why are we afraid of this phenomenon? Is it something that did not exist in the past to this degree? What are the causes for the abusers?” Banks told the Miami Herald. "It was to me profoundly mysterious and important in regard to our attitudes towards sex and children and protecting children."
So he spent the next three years researching and writing Lost Memory of Skin.
He visited those living under the bridge and was struck by the range of offenses lumped together: "serial rapists, pedophiles, guys convicted of indecent exposure because they got caught urinating outside, some 18-year-old boy who has oral sex with a 15-year-old,” he told the New York Times.
Known as the Kid, Russell's main character is one of the residents living beneath the causeway. A 22-year-old virgin who was convicted of soliciting sex from an underage girl on the internet, the Kid is monitored by the government and harassed by police raids and inquisitive university sociologists.
There's a Huck Finn-esque trip down the Great Panzacola Swamp, a stand-in for the Everglades, and even a shanty bar called Benbow's, which bares a strikingly similarity to Jimbo's on Virginia Key.
Banks first came to Miami in 1958 intrigued by Fidel Castro in Cuba, but decided South Florida was culture shock enough.
“It was exotic, semi-tropical and magical in all kinds of ways,’’ Banks told the Miami Herald. “What’s interesting to me now is that I still have that same hit when I get off the plane in Miami, and I can smell the Gulf Stream, the fall of light, the heat, the sun, the palm trees, the sound of peoples’ voices — that whole ambience. I still get that same rush."
“If you think about it, all of Miami is artificial,” Banks told the New York Times. “The whole place is one big work of fiction.”
Banks is up against Don DeLillo, Anita Desai, Steven Millhauser, and Julie Otsuka for the PEN/Faulkner award, which will be announced March 26.