Saturday, December 17, 2011

Unlikely protagonists undercut The Sojourn and Lost Memory of Skin

An Austro-Hungarian sniper in World War I and a convicted sex offender are the unlikely protagonists in two novels that promise more than they deliver.

Book 128: The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

Shortlisted for the 2011 National Book Award, The Sojourn is the sort of novel that contest judges love -- filled with weighty themes from the despoliation of innocence to the meaning of life and the horrors of war.

Jozef Vinich is an America who finds himself at war through a series of unfortunate events and misjudgments.  While an infant, in Colorado, Jozef's mother is killed after taking a stroll along a train trestle. 

Unsuccessful in America and mourning the loss of his wife, Jozef's father packs up his son and his trusty rifle and returns to his native Austria-Hungary. A cruel step-mother, two bullying step-brothers and an impoverished life as a shepherd await Jozef.

When war breaks out, Jozef lies about his age and enlists.  His skill with a rifle -- honed while hunting for food when not tending sheep -- leads to his assignment as a sniper.  

We follow Jozef through the war, his capture and subsequent imprisonment and his return home. During that return, Jozef befriends a pregnant woman. She dies giving birth and Jozef assumes responsibility for returning the infant to the woman's family. Clearly, it is opportunity for redemption for the death's bestowed at a remove during the war. 

The Sojourn breaks no new ground. Many of the scenes in the novel feel stale and predictable. Other war novels have told this story before, and told it better.

Book 129: Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

A far more promising and original novel is Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks.

It's the story of the Kid, a 22-year-old, sex offender living, with other sex offenders, beneath a highway overpass. The irony is that the Kid is a virgin who has yet to kiss a woman.

An egregious misstep in judgment led to his arrest and conviction.  The punishment imposed on the Kid is excessive and seems likely to follow him throughout his life. That's one of the points Banks seeks to make. The Kid isn't so bad, just unfortunate. He never knew his father and his mother abetted her son's addiction to pornography.

Had the novel remained focused on the Kid, it might have worked. Maybe.  The Kid is still a most unlikely protagonist. The trouble is that Banks introduces a second character, a college professor seeking to interview the Kid in support of his theory that sex offenders can reintegrated into society.

But in the course of the novel, the professor turns up dead. Either he killed himself, disconsolate that his wife has left him or because he was also a sex offender and the police were closing in or -- and this is where the novel really goes off the rails -- he was a spy who was killed because he knew to much. 

Really. A spy? Where'd that come from.

Banks never resolves the question of the professor's suicide/murder. And, after introducing the possibility of a shadowy espionage ring, I'm not sure he could.

Banks' dalliance with the professor also distracts and diminishes from the Kid's story, turning the entire novel into farce. What begins as a provocative and thoughtful novel, ends disappointingly.

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