Being on the TLA (Texas Library Association) Lariat List task force this past year has kept me busy reading all kinds of books I might not have picked up otherwise. But with only six weeks to go until we convene at the TLA annual conference in San Antonio, I am challenged to finish reading through our 2009 nominations list. In fact, most of the titles left are in genres I don't usually read: thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, etc. In fact I've felt a bit resentful of the Lariat shackles lately, wishing I could start reading 2010 books by writers I know and love. So picking up Blame by Michele Huneven, I was pleasantly surprised; the book reads like a mix of literary fiction, thriller and recovery memoir.
Because she regularly drinks to such excess that she blacks out, history professor Pasty MacLemoore is no stranger to the Altadena, California jail. She is in her late twenties and still a party girl. Except this morning in May, 1981, when she wakes up in jail having lost a day or two, she is not going back out on the party circuit anytime soon. She thinks the Homicide Police are fooling her when they claim she mowed down two people with her car in the driveway of her home - a mother and her daughter, Jehovah's Witnesses delivering fliers. Guilt floods her soul. In fact, her driver's license was suspended and she should not have been behind the wheel.
If Patsy does not sound like the kind of character you could care about, I'm with you. How does someone smart enough to get a PHD at Berkeley become such a raging alcoholic? For one thing, we learn that alcoholism runs in her family. But as Patsy works her way through the prison system and stays sober, reluctantly and then religiously going to AAA, she earns our respect. She wrestles with the urge to drink again, but stays sober. After serving her time, Patsy leads a cautious, careful life, first teaching ESL and then going back to her college position. Her best friend becomes a young gay man named Gilles. She also stays in touch with her victims' family, both the husband and his son, even helping them with college finances. She marries a recovered alcoholic very much her senior, and settles into his large, complicated family.
The novel covers some twenty years in Patsy's life post-accident. There is a major twist to the tale so I am not going to go into any more plot details. When I care about the main character, I am at my happiest reading a novel. I came to care deeply about Patsy MacLemoore. I kept thinking she would eventually go off the rails and drink again, but she did not. Lots of events gave her reason to drink, but the experience of prison life, and all the shame and blame she apportions herself, keep her on the right path. She learns to coexist with her guilt. But will she ever allow herself true happiness again? Bluntly honest and appraising, Blame is by turns gritty, neurotic and insightful.