Guilt Tripping

In Michelle Huneven’s Blame, it isn’t necessarily the drinking that kills you but what happens after you stop


Los Angeles magazine, September 2009

Money, like alcohol, is a wonderful insulator. Michelle Huneven’s third novel, Blame (Sarah Crichton Books, 304 pages, $25), begins in 1980, but the Los Angeles that figures as its backdrop is largely unchanged from the ’50s or even the ’30s. It’s a haven of horses, housekeepers, and exclusive clubs. Huneven, who was born in Altadena and has returned after sojourning in various L.A. neighborhoods, captures the eerie serenity produced by huge amounts of sunshine imbibed in conjunction with dark-paneled interiors. As in her previous novels, though, the people living in her versions of paradise spend most of their time anticipating a visit from the snake.

The first character we meet in Blame, 12-year-old Joey, is well known to the staff of the Bellwood Hotel—her parents’ occasional residence. The hotel, a wainscoted dowager with a ladies’ snooker lounge, is in Pasadena, which partly explains the preserved-in-amber atmosphere. Time in Joey’s own world is also suspended. Her mother is in the final stages of cancer, and her glamorously improvident young uncle has been enlisted as a baby-sitter. What ensues is a lost weekend fueled by beer provided by the uncle’s girlfriend and culminating in Joey’s late-night sighting of her mother being delivered by ambulance to the Bellwood’s back door. Mystery or hallucination? What we think we know, Huneven’s novel reminds us, and what we do with the knowledge are two different kettles of fish.

The imprudent girlfriend is Patsy MacLemoore, Blame’s main character, whom we next meet in an Altadena jail cell. A 29-year-old history professor driving with a suspended license, she’s awakened barely injured from an accident that killed a mother and daughter. Joey’s uncle, Brice, will also waft in and out of the novel—a substance of abuse in human form. He’s a deliverer of magical moments but chronically unreliable. Joey, meanwhile, comes to think of Patsy as a wholesome influence. The action in Blame spans more than two decades: long enough for people to change or to accept, finally, that some can’t.

Patsy pleads guilty to criminal negligence and serves two years in the California penal system, moving from county receiving to a minimum-to-medium-security wing to a Malibu fire camp, all of which Huneven describes in vividly sobering detail. Raised in Bakersfield, Patsy is an appealing mix—an erudite cowgirl, equally good at analysis and self-deception.

“She might have a genetic propensity for alcoholism,” Huneven writes, “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 Party Hardest 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.”

By the time her sentence is up, “range” has come to look less like a virtue. Returning to Pasadena to create an alcohol-free version of her former self, Patsy learns to recognize damaging romantic patterns, makes amends to her victims’ family, takes care of a friend dying of AIDS, achieves tenure, eschews an affair. Her self-imposed tasks of atonement are made easier by Brice, a better buddy than he was a lover. He connects her to Cal, once owner of the Bellwood. He’s now a widower and a star speaker on the sobriety circuit. Patsy yearns for him to be her AA sponsor. Instead she marries him.

Alcohol, for many novelists, has been as much a fixture of the Los Angeles landscape as the hazy atmosphere. For Huneven, though, whose mordantly funny first novel, Round Rock, was set on a former dry-out farm, the focus is not the drink but the process of stopping drinking. It’s a little like Jane Austen’s innovative shift from the hoary topic of love to the practical tragicomedy of marriage making—19th-century romance’s one-day-at-a-time recovery program. Both women’s novels benefit from the same discovery. Where obsession’s solitary wallow yields one big story (often over and over), a social institution with spoken and unspoken rules is a cornucopia of narrative twists and moral knots.

It doesn’t take Patsy many months of marriage to find that Cal isn’t quite the powerhouse she thought. “He was employed by the family corporation, true, but he was not a major player there. The houses he’d offered to give her early in their courtship were not, strictly speaking, his alone to give.” His greatest talent is being in AA. Still, he’s able to confer social position, a horse of her own, travel benefits, and a ready-made brood of mostly adult children. Besides, as Cal’s wife, Patsy is an AA star, too. Her story, after all—jailhouse to a big house—is near perfect.

So is Huneven’s tone. In her earlier novels she seemed afraid to let her characters and stories stand alone. Jamesland (2003) burdened the poignant and hilarious fumblings of spiritual seekers in Los Feliz with a research-heavy subplot involving the philosopher William James. In Round Rock (1997) she periodically stepped back from her citrus-belt setting—a small Piru-esque town in a Ventura-like county—to cast it in a distractingly jokey Lake Wobegon-ish light. In Blame, though, the only thing resembling an authorial intrusion is Huneven’s habit of giving a character from a previous novel a cameo in the present one. Patsy is the novel’s central consciousness, but other viewpoints emerge narratively—in conversations with her therapist, her new sister-in-law, and an amorous colleague. All of them, we suddenly find, have been working from a false premise.

Although Patsy accepted responsibility for the accident, she cannot actually confess—she doesn’t remember any of it. What we see is the minutiae of her expiation: 20 years of good works, diligent routines, banked fires. In her late forties she picks up the phone to hear a different story. She was indeed too drunk to drive the night of the fatal crash, and she was with a companion who realized that. He was the one at the wheel who, dazed, wandered off and disappeared without a trace.

For Patsy, trying to untwine her past from the guilt that smothered it is like recovering from a second addiction—one for which there are no meetings. Having chosen an emotional life that hugs the middle, she now has to wonder whether she gave up too much. A historian, Patsy believes in following a thesis wherever it leads, corroborating as she goes, but Cal has no interest in the emerging facts of her case. Drinkers, he insists, are responsible for what happens no matter what. Accepting guilt is an essential part of their story. Cal still has an unconquered addiction—rescuing the blameworthy. Falsely accused is not a quality he’s ever looked for in a wife.

Novels, like recovery, can’t be rushed. In Blame Huneven takes her time to reach a conclusion that’s satisfying without being neat. True losses are offset by small gains. The snake is always coiled at the heart of paradise, but with goodwill and a dose of humility, even its actions can be forgiven. Evil, in Huneven’s novels, harms the victim as well as the perpetrator, and grace arrives every now and again like a phone call out of the blue. Of course, generally speaking, the call is apt to be collect.

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