Pedophiles have it hard. When they’re not the subjects of moral outrage or legal pursuit, they’re paralyzed by morality or disappointed by rejection. From Death in Venice to Lolita, sexual relations between adults and children just don’t seem to work out. The children, once the bloom is off the rose, tend to take flight, leaving the brokenhearted adults feeling, well, like child molesters.
Keith Banner tosses his hat into the pedophilia ring with The Life I Lead, his first novel. Rather than imbuing molestation with larger symbolism— a yearning for lost youth (Mann’s Gustav) or a European romanticism transposed onto trashy America (Nabokov’s Humbert)— Banner finds in pedophilia the bittersweet redemptive qualities of first love, an everyday occurrence remembered with a fond, sad smile. The link between first love and worst love is bizarrely convincing here, and makes for a book you can’t put down. It should also be said, however, that sometimes you wish you hadn’t picked it up.
The accompanying publicity for The Life I Lead describes a novel about a man named David Brewer, happily married and employed, whose feelings for a young boy named Nathan progress from sympathy to obsession. This is some other book. David Brewer is married to a woman who acts like “somebody took her batteries out,” and spends his afternoons hiding in the company truck drinking vodka and praying for an opportunity to spy on Nathan, the latest in a series of preteen attractions. “I think of fat people eating in the middle of the night,” David says of his predilection, “or dope fiends taking in their dope in a back alley, that kind of a smile coming across my face, lighting up my world brighter than reality.”
The reality of The Life I Lead is rural Indiana, “a desert made up of old newspapers,” rendered so parched and stained that one can scarcely be surprised at what blooms here. And David is not by any means the first unholy flower in Banner’s hopeless terrain. In alternating chapters, we meet Troy, who molested David back when he was Nathan’s age. As in many novels with several points of view, the voices of the narrators tend to be awfully similar, but this works for the novel rather than against it; as both men recount the nervous logistics of pursuing their young objects, the two pedophiles serve not as axles on some pop-psych cycle of abuse, but as two versions of the same love story. While the other narrators— David’s low-battery wife and dying father— flounder uneasily, David and Troy find the only redemption they can. Whether they are experiencing the first rush of predatory embrace, or merely remembering it, these men are the only characters finding happiness.
Happiness, of course, calls to mind Todd Solondz’s film, another recent entry in this kind of story. But unlike Solondz’s universal scorn, Nabokov’s piercing irony, or Mann’s distant grandiosity, Banner’s tone is relentlessly noncommittal. Like anyone in love, the narrators are so swamped in details— the gifts, the parts of the body, the stolen moments alone— that any larger picture is “a sadness seen from off the interstate.” Banner lets the specifics both anchor and drive the plot. An uncanny coincidence— it would be too uncanny in another novel— forces a confrontation that rattles but does not topple the solace these men attain. They don’t get off scot-free, but their selective vision of past moments is freedom enough for them. The novel doesn’t end happily, but then neither does The Bridges of Madison County, another book in which happy memories sweeten the sting of a romance not meant to be.
It is when Banner steps back from the details that The Life I Lead stumbles. David volunteers at a church, and for a time the novel loses itself in forced riffs on Father and Son that seem a bit too eager to shock. The problem isn’t really the eagerness, but that the shock doesn’t take; in Banner’s landscape, it’s hardly surprising to learn that salvation can’t be found in these stale Sundays. More important, when Banner wonders about God, it raises questions we didn’t notice back when we were copping feels on the Tilt-A-Whirl. These questions are less about finding happiness in terrible acts and more about a novel that refuses to find it anywhere else. In a time when so much new fiction is showy, or paltry, Banner reads like the real thing. But what does it say about his sort of originality that you can’t read more than 10 pages at a sitting?
The Life I Lead is a powerful novel, by an intensely skillful writer unafraid to lead the reader to harrowing places in which the unthinkable is forgivable. One hopes the reviewer will be forgiven for wondering what we’re supposed to do when we get there.