on Blame, a novel by Michelle Huneven (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Michelle Huneven’s Blame, her third novel, has been discussed in The New York Times Book Review, on NPR, and in newspapers and book blogs around America. Its premise is out in the open. Patsy MacLemoore, a 29-year old history professor and a repeat DUI offender, wakes up in the local lockup from an alcoholic black-out to learn that she killed a mother and daughter, Jehovah’s Witnesses, while turning into her own driveway. Years later, she discovers that someone else was behind the wheel that night.

HunevenCover.jpgThe novel’s title points glaringly at its subject, the grip of guilt and the groping for lost innocence. But Huneven has achieved a fiction that succeeds well beyond its publisher’s marketing phrases – even while providing thematic handrails for book clubs. When the startling news of her innocence arrives, the clarification of “blame” extends beyond the killings to the more profound if harder to conceive depths of the psyche. The pleasure of Blame is the credibility of its veneer, the restrained intuition of what lies beneath, and the reader’s addiction to Huneven’s shrewd withholdings.

Aghast at the damage she has caused, Patsy decides to reconstitute herself. While the reader perches with her on the surface of a new regimen, her culture’s reasonable redemption narrative (you are to blame, you must make amends) doesn’t quite extinguish our sense that it is an insufficient recourse or palliative. One cares about Patsy – blonde, 5’-11”, smart, candid, perceptive, well-intentioned, and incomplete.

Patsy’s reconstructed life is hardly remarkable, but Huneven expertly sustains a long tension between the enforced shape of Patsy’s determined reformation and the reader’s half-willing acquiescence in approving her choices. Furthermore, Huneven risks a slowing of pace and action as the novel’s early swiftness and acutely perceived prison and release sequences slide into a more studied register of voice and the more patterned movements of a managed life.

In an interview at The Elegant Variation, Huneven said Blame grew out of a short story, revised to form the 16-page lobby chapter, “July 1980,” in which 12-year old Joey Hawthorne gets her ears pierced by Patsy, drunkenly wielding a needle from a sewing kit. The prose flows rapidly, as if Joey’s mind must race to keep up with Patsy:

“Now come on, I gotta get this in, Patsy said. The earring post was thicker than the needle, a thicker stringer yet. Joey tried to pull away, she couldn’t help herself, but Patsy held her by the ear. Just give me a minute here, said Patsy.
“O wow OW, Joey said. Patsy wiggled the earring, her warm, sour breath coming in short, ragged bursts, her eyes wild and, to Joey, terrifying. Stay still, Jesus Christ, she said sharply, yanking Joey by the ear.”

Part II, “May 1981,” opens with Patsy in a cell at the county jail in Altadena, California. By page 38, she is on her way to the penitentiary, carrying a four-year sentence. In prison Patsy attends her first AA meeting:

“Patsy recoiled at the loser litanies and simplistic religiosity. She might have a genetic propensity for alcoholism, but she’d always stayed on track, accumulating degrees and honors and publications in spite of a concomitant taste for liquor, pharmaceuticals, and rich boy wastrels. She’d been valedictorian and Part Hardiest in high school, the first in her family to matriculate into a University of California grad school and a California correctional institution. She, at least, had range.”

Huneven.jpgSuch is Patsy’s memory of Berkeley while incarcerated: “Even then some said, We can’t keep up with you, Patsy. The story of her life: nobody could keep up.” Here in the early pages of Blame, the reader moves promptly in step with Huneven’s quick-paced narrator, just as Patsy’s friends once let her set the tone and accelerations of their socializing. The speedy, stinging telling of Patsy’s punishment may pretend a wobbly writerly balance between staying on and off the tracks, but the confidence of the prose is unmistakable.

HunevenAntique.jpgThe third section, dated “June 1983,” finds Patsy back in Altadena, regulated by new habits and determined to change. The narrator says, “She’d had a sharp tongue before. But she’d made a pledge to herself: no harmful speech. She was making a clean beginning here. Keeping her big mouth shut. Her new reticence pleased her, except when she felt like a prig.” The telling of Blame begins to decelerate in this section as Patsy sticks to reliable patterns of behavior: teaching her classes, seeing a few close acquaintances, attending AA meetings, living in an apartment.

Huneven moves Patsy between finely heard encounters with her analyst Eileen Silver, her gay friend Gilles (lover of her ex-boyfriend Brice), and an inconsiderate artist-lover (“She herself was ashamed to feel so much with so little encouragement”), and other characters (her parole officer, her newly married friend, and the widower of the woman she supposedly killed).

HunevenAA.jpgThen, she marries her AA sponsor, the wealthy and much older Cal Sharp, “reliably generous,” whose “easy elegance” and senatorial presence at AA meetings is hard to resist. But Blame regards the American addiction and recovery movement on a slant, much as the Huneven makes it difficult merely to disparage a young woman’s marriage to a man with a samaritan’s reflexes, arid affections, and ebbing libido – even as we know that Patsy isn’t comfortable with Cal’s So-Cal white Protestant, spend-the-interest-but-never-the-principle lifestyle and its “anti-intellectual, pro-business Eisenhower parochialism … The world she fled for Berkeley.” This is also her parents' set. (Her mother dies during her prison term; her father, living elsewhere, was notorious for his own drunken rages.)

“Going slow allows you to stay current with yourself,” counsels Patsy’s shrink, “and with each other, so you can face your emotions as they arise and not in one undifferentiated swirl. So you know what you feel and what you need each step of the way.” Blame depicts and narrates that slowness – the book’s rhythms embody it. Huneven’s narrator only sparingly peers directly at Patsy’s dilemma – but those moments tighten the knot. Patsy replies, “That’s what I’m trying to do. Move at a manageable pace.” The conversation continues:

“But isn’t there a higher, truer self, a self that’s free of addiction and obsession, that knows what’s best for you? Said Silver. And isn’t that why you come here? To find and nourish that authentic, unenslaved self?
No, Patsy said with wonder. Not at all. That never even occurred to me.
So tell me, Patsy, why do you come here?
Guilt, she said. How to live with guilt.”

HunevenRect.jpgFor the reader, Patsy’s goal seems central and sincere enough – not to mention familiar. So when the revelation of the killings arrives, it fails to dilute the guilt. Something impinges at a deeper level. This is, I think, the most technically difficult part of the writing -- moving toward the exit but forcing the reader to step out sideways. Huneven pulls it off.

[Published September 1, 2009. 304 pages, $25.00 hardcover]

Caring About Patsy MacLemoore

It's so true, as you say, that "one cares about Patsy." BLAME is a novel about watching her with care, since it seems she is alone, even with her friends helping her at various points and even when she's married. You also say she's candid, but she really isn't a deeply perceptive person and the narrator doesn't get into layers of analysis about her. But this is what impresses me about BLAME. I stay on its surface (as you also say) which is told with such economy and a kind of nervous jumpiness while I stay uncomfortable with what may exist beneath it all. Perceptive review. Thanks!