Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Blame.
In the opening chapter of Blame, Huneven delves deep into the life of young Joey Hawthorne and how she copes with the death of her mother,
but it is Joey’s encounter with Patsy McLemoore, a professor who teaches history at a local college, that sets the plot of this redemptive novel in motion. Joey doesn’t realize that Patsy is rolling drunk when she offers to pierce Joey’s ears and irresponsibly offers her beer and pills to cope the pain.
This scene more than any other offers a window into what is to come as Patsy’s chaotic odyssey plays out. A raging, functional alcoholic with a penchant for indulging in drunken blackouts, Patsy can’t quite believe it when she wakes up
one morning in the county jail and learns that she has run over and killed two Jehovah's Witnesses, a mother and her daughter who were walking down Patsy’s driveway.
For the first time, Patsy understands that she’s floating on the edge, about to fall into a sweeping chasm, the word “homicide” echoing throughout her head. After the arraignment and the indictment, preliminary hearing, and sentencing, Patsy pleads guilty.
At twenty-nine, she is thrust into the prison system, a world of indifferent guards, waxed floors, and empty hallways, the noise always “intense, layered and sane.”
Here, settled in the chilly climate of her new life, Patsy begins her recovery, pulling herself back from the brink, trying to rejuvenate her soul and that scrap of energy
which lies in “tatters seemingly beyond repair.” While Huneven’s description of Patsy’s efforts to cope with prison life are as gutsy and detailed as her main protagonist’s rocky path toward self-realization, the bulk of Blame actually takes place after Patsy has done her time.
After two years, Patsy is a free woman, finally able to move from the
stressful structured environment of prison into the messy unpredictability of everyday life.
Her friends become her guiding light, and her search for love and redemption becomes her great undertaking.
The affable Gilles and his boyfriend, Brice, Patsy’s old tormenter, are complicit in helping her cope, along
with Sarah, Henry, and Eileen Silver, the therapist whom she visits when she feels overwhelmed and isolated.
Later, when she meets fellow AA member Cal Sharp, who looks like an old movie star,
she cannot help but become spellbound by his “easy elegance.” The two form a special relationship
that anchors the later stages of the novel.
Throughout Patsy’s twenty-year journey, she remains an enigmatic character -
sort of hard to get to know. She isn’t one to act on grand passions or inflect gratuitous pain, and she’s the first to admit that she’s “still working off a backlog of guilt.” Even her overtures to Mark Parnham, the husband of the woman she killed - and who is all too willing to forgive her - come across as phony, especially when all Patsy wants to do is to “forget what had thrown them together.”
While the supporting characters are complex, riddled with their own issues -
Brice’s sexual identity, Cal’s financial troubles, and Gilles’ illness with HIV
- Huneven always handles their lives candor and a lively dose of honesty. Throughout the decades, Patsy remains at the center of it all. She’s the constant survivor as she undertakes her years of forced sobriety and an adult Joey Hawthorne returns into her life, her earth-shattering revelation
forever changing Patsy’s assumptions about blame.