Blame (Magill's Literary Annual 2010)
Los Angeles as a literary landscape has long been the territory of gritty detective stories and tragic or comedic tales of the glittering denizens of Hollywood. However, the area is also home to quite a few novelists who explore dilemmas of the human heart occurring in lesser-known parts of the region. Michelle Huneven’s novel Blame, which tells of the personal price extracted for a random event, plays out in three environments unfamiliar to most readers: a woman’s prison, the subculture of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the old-money enclaves of Altadena and Pasadena, which have changed very little during the decades of the metropolitan area’s explosive growth.
Six months after Patsy MacLemoore successfully defends her dissertation and earns a Ph.D., she enters the custody of the California correctional system. She has just pled guilty to two counts of criminal negligence resulting in loss of life. The plea bargain was the best deal her attorney Benny could get; she had several prior convictions for driving while under the influence of alcohol and was driving with a suspended license when she hit two Jehovah’s Witnesses, a mother and daughter, in her own driveway. Patsy herself remembers nothing about the accident. She only knows that she blacked out then awakened in jail, finding her joking query, “What’d I do now?” met with stony silence.
Patsy enters prison overwhelmed with guilt and dread. Benny has warned her that prison is horrible, and it is. All around her are metallic sounds and shrieking. The solitude she expected to experience in confinement never materializes: She is always surrounded by other women prisoners, many of whom babble constantly. The food is so bad that she stops eating. She loses thirty pounds in her first month in prison and is only saved from starvation when Gloria, an older woman who functions as a sort of den mother to her fellow prisoners, gets Patsy a job working in the kitchen. There, she can filch saltine packets and occasionally eat an apple or banana. When she is moved to a medium-security unit, Patsy survives on food from the commissary, which she likens to a badly stocked convenience store. She buys ramen noodles, tuna, and expired crackers that she can consume in her dormitory.
Patsy knows she must give up drinking. She refuses the rotgut concoctions others sneak into prison, but for a long time she also turns down Gloria’s invitations to join the prison’s Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sessions. The sheer lure of alcohol is still too seductive for her to face giving it up for a lifetime. Eventually, she does attend the sessions, drawn as much by the genuine laughter and camaraderie found there as by the prospect that her attendance may later help her gain parole.
Patsy’s self-denial goes beyond food and drink. Racked with remorse, she resolves to live a better life, to not be cruel in word or deed, and to make a difference. For the last year of her sentence, she is assigned to a fire camp in the hills above Malibu. Despite the bone-wearying work of chopping brush and the occasional danger of fighting wildfires, it is “easier time” than prison. From camp, she can see vistas of the sea and mountains; the food is actually good, cooked from scratch on-site.
Patsy’s release comes in June, 1983, two months earlier than expected. She is given a long list of conditions she must meet in order to be released. Patsy’s former boyfriend Brice, her most faithful visitor in prison, has arranged for some of them. He secures an apartment for her at the Lyster, a formerly fashionable apartment building that he manages. Her department head at Hallen College has already assured her that she will have a teaching job in the fall. Because she needs to show that she is working immediately, she takes an English as a second language (ESL) summer teaching assignment at a nearby school. She also has to attend frequent AA meetingsninety meetings in ninety days, says Knock-Knock, her parole officer. She must also to be prepared for Knock-Knock to drop by and check on her any time.
The following year is possibly the most eventful of Patsy’s life. Her adjustment to freedom, though welcome, is equally as traumatic as was that to prison two years before. Patsy is unused to having a whole apartment to herself and to being sociable without the buffers of liquor and the hilarity it provides. Formerly, she had a sharp wit and a reputation as the life of the party, but now she has become subdued and even shy. Fortunately, Brice proves a more reliable friend than he was a lover. He and Gilles, who has moved in with him, often invite Patsy to dinner and provide rides to AA meetings. Patsy also follows up on Knock-Knock’s recommendation of a therapist and finds in Eileen Silver a wonderful confidant who helps her work through depression and other life issues.
(The entire section is 1989 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2010)
The Atlantic Monthly 304, no. 3 (October, 2009): 114.
Booklist 105, no. 21 (July 1, 2009): 27.
Library Journal 134, no. 13 (August 1, 2009): 68.
Los Angeles Magazine 54, no. 9 (September, 2009): 72.
The New Yorker 85, no. 33 (October 19, 2009): 87.
People 72, no. 12 (September 21, 2009): 65.
Publishers Weekly 256, no. 20 (July 20, 2009): 122.