In a morally intricate, labyrinthine plot, Russell Banks (Cloudsplitter; Continental Drift) has taken on an unpopular subject, pedophilia, and tried, not entirely successfully, to humanize it. The Kid is a registered sex offender, wearing an ankle tracer and living with other offenders beneath a causeway in southern Florida--one of the few places that is more than the legally mandated 2,500 feet from an area where children might gather. Theirs is the squalid existence of throwaways, filled with garbage and rats. When the police raid the location for political reasons, the Kid manages to escape.
The Kid is 22, an ignorant but not stupid loner, who got caught in a sting after showing up at the home of a girl who admitted online to being 14. He came bearing beer, condoms and pornographic DVDs. He didn't see her, let alone touch her, but was taken down in the front yard by police after a man who might be the girl's father confronted him. Earlier the Kid had been given a general discharge from the army for distributing porn to his fellow soldiers, which he had done in the hope of making a few friends. Good choices have been at a premium.
After the causeway raid, the Professor arrives; hugely fat, tall and imposing, he sees the Kid and the other inhabitants of the causeway as research subjects. A sociologist, he theorizes that organization and responsibility will change their lives, so helps them form committees to get tasks done, like tidying up and digging a latrine. It works for a while, until a hurricane blows through and wipes out their shelters and possessions. The Professor finds the Kid and takes him home, where he discovers that his wife and the children have left him.
He has interviewed the Kid about his life, a sad tale about a neglectful mother and absent father, and now he asks the Kid to interview him in turn for purposes of producing a DVD to give to his wife after his imminent death. There follows a story about the Professor's past, just bizarre enough to be true; as he says, "The world is full of people who aren't who or what they say they are." Another recurring theme is spoken by the Writer: "We just have to choose what to believe and act accordingly, Kid." These characters, plus an iguana, a decrepit dog and a wounded parrot, are all damaged goods.
There is nothing uplifting about this tale; indeed, it is an indictment of knee-jerk reactions to offenses that are vastly different and receive the same harsh punishment. Although it is slightly polemical and occasionally preachy, you will keep reading because Banks knows how to tell his story. --Valerie Ryan
Shelf Talker: A young sex offender, the Kid, gets hooked up with the Professor, who is bent on rehabilitating homeless sex offenders.