At Pie ‘n Burger in Pasadena, the local ladies gossip over their lunch, the wooden swivel chairs date back to the diner’s opening in 1963, and the waitress brings you dairy creamer for your coffee. Michelle Huneven knows the place well enough to request real milk for her decaf, and she orders boysenberry pie (she calls it “boy pie”), not warmed up, with only a touch of ice cream. We met at this venerable establishment because it’s one of the many real-life settings in her third book, Blame, a beautiful and masterful novel that was recently nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Within a few pages, I had fallen in love. It opens with twelve-year-old Joey Hawthorne, whose mother is dying of cancer. One afternoon, her rakish Uncle Brice retrieves her from summer typing class in his Studebaker pickup. Huneven writes:
Joey loved him thoroughly and irrationally and planned to marry him the moment she turned twenty-one and came into her own trust fund. (She’d heard there were states in the Deep South where uncle and niece might wed.) Joey dreamed of restoring Brice to the lifestyle and financial bracket where he rightfully belonged, although she also imagined dispatching her money with the same profligacy with which he’d already flown through his, if only for the sheer, exhilarating blur of it.
Aside from depicting the moneyed world of Southern California in the early 1980s, this chapter also introduces us to Patsy MacLemoore, Brice’s blonde and leggy girlfriend who gets Joey drunk that night, and then pierces her ears. Structurally, the book is quite daring, for although we begin with Joey, it’s Patsy we follow for the remainder of the narrative. A year after this night, she wakes behind bars after an alcoholic blackout. She has run over two people–a mother and daughter–and killed them. The rest of the story is about Patsy negotiating this tragic event, and her “incredible burden of guilt,” as Huneven calls it. She goes to prison, gets sober, and tries to be good. And then, after nearly twenty years of being good, she discovers that everything she thought about herself was wrong. Huneven started this book with a single question: What if you led a life according to some fact, and then you discovered that fact was wrong? “Would that still be a good life worth living?” Huneven pondered. She told me:
There’s a self-awareness in sobriety that’s good and important. There’s some fear in it, too, that I don’t think is really healthy. As in, “Oh my God, if I take a drink, then I’ll end up in the morgue, or a hospital, or jail.” Which strands of her life will Patsy keep, and which ones will she relinquish? I wrote the book to find out.
What I liked most about Blame was how much of Patsy’s life we get. The narrative distills time deftly, pausing to show us important moments, and skating smoothly over others. It’s rich characterization; the book captures so well the everyday struggle to be alive, and, in this way, it felt real. It reminded me a little of Stoner by John Williams, which I’ve praised before. Both novels take characters through vast swaths of time, and we see how they are changed–and how they aren’t. As Patsy ages, we witness her absorption of new values–whether they be from AA, or from her therapist, Silver, or from various relationships. I found the evolution of these relationships the most compelling; she and Brice, for instance, remain connected throughout the novel, although they are no longer romantically involved after the first chapter. “I’m really interested in how long term relationships change over the years,” Huneven told me. “I live next door to a woman I met on the very first day of high school. Our lives are intertwined in such a funny way. I’m always so interested in how everyone is interrelated, how people come back into your life. I used to think everything would be lost, but maybe because I’ve stayed in one place, or come back to where I live, it’s not lost—it’s just rearranged. I wanted to write about that.”
Perhaps the fact that Huneven lives where she grew up, in Altadena, explains why she is able to capture life in this way. “I’m interested in the swerves of time, in the adjustments people make,” she said. She calls Patsy’s story “a slow life-orientation,” and adds, “If you think of the life Patsy would have in the first chapter, if you met her, you’d think she’d eventually settle down but she’d always be wild and a wise ass. But then this big thing happens and it really changes who she is.” This, I think, is what makes Blame so fascinating. As a writer–and maybe as a human, too–I’m intrigued by the idea that a single event can alter character so drastically, that the self might be mutable. In my classes, I tell my students to think of scenes as dominoes, each one falling into the next, a ripple of influence. In Huneven’s novel, the single event of the accident–or as it’s imagined by Patsy–forces every moment in her future to fall a certain way. “The guilt made her want to be good,” Huneven said of her main character. And was she good? And does it matter? I turned these questions over and over in my mind as I read.
I wanted to meet with Huneven for selfish reasons; I hoped she’d tell me her magic. How does one treat time in this way? Alas, she did not reveal to me her secret powers. “I go a little ways, and then I get stuck,” she explained. “And then I go a little ways, and then I get stuck.” She had a general road map of Patsy’s life, she admitted, and the everyday aspects were always in place. For instance, during the novel’s climax, Patsy is grading. Even as she must reconsider her notion of self, Patsy continues to do her teaching work: she writes marginal comments, wills that stack of exams to decrease, and, all the while, wrestles with the past and the life she’s made for herself. The grading was there from the first draft, Huneven said. This juxtaposition, of the life-changing and the mundane, is powerful in its authenticity–but it’s not abject naturalism, either. The narration is nimble in what it shows and dramatizes, and what it merely alludes to. I asked Huneven if she had used other organizational techniques to capture Patsy’s life. “There is a pulse of sobriety and her whole relationship to AA,” she said. Huneven pointed out that, although it isn’t always shown on the page, Patsy is going through the 12 steps. Huneven doesn’t dramatize them, scene by scene, but they are there, humming in the background. In this way, the characterization of Patsy feels both monumental and incremental. “I’m really interested in a woman who is not the most privileged citizen,” Huneven said. “How much of the world can manifest around her?”
When I pushed further, asking how Huneven prepared and worked through this story, both its smallness and its bigness, she laughed. “I’m always making calendars,” she said. “The difference between short stories and novels is, with a novel, sooner or later you’re on the floor with a pad of paper making timelines and calendars and family trees.” Our conversation turned often from writing Blame to writing in general. “What’s wrong with you, is wrong with your writing,” Huneven told me. “It really behooves you to find out what that is, so that you can disguise that in your writing. Or compensate it, or cover it up. Or cure it, if you can.” With Blame, Huneven said she worked to cut out the unnecessary, to not “hammer everything home,” as she thought she’d done in her previous books. “With Blame, I tried to be more swift.” Then, Huneven turned her bad-ass gaze on me, and said, “Now tell me what’s wrong with your writing.” Clearly, she’s a terrific teacher.
I asked Huneven how the Southern California in her novel compared to the one we lived in. She gave me a funny look, as if they weren’t different–and in a way, she’s right. The world Patsy moves through is so carefully detailed and described, it’s as vivid and real as the room I sit in right now. Take this description, for instance:
They drove west to an area near the Rose Bowl where, at the turn of the century, wealthy midwestern industrialists built enormous family homes on one-acre lots along curving treelined streets. Together the houses formed a kind of architecture beauty pageant, the Swiss chateau, the Craftsman, the Mission revival, the shingled Cape Cod, not one matching its neighbor. The long, graceful limbs of the bayberry trees overhung the streets, filtered the sun through bright green leaves. The pea-sized berries, crushed by tires, mentholated the air and made the whole neighborhood smell like a cough-suppressant rub.
“Setting gives birth to character,” Huneven told me. She’d wanted to write Blame for three years, but couldn’t because she didn’t know where it was set. “I thought Boise, and then Sacramento,” she said. “I wanted some place with an old downtown hotel. Vestigial country club, parochial, Eisenhower Republican wealth. Once I decided to write it in Pasadena, I started cooking.”
I asked her if she could imagine Patsy dining at the Pie ‘n Burger–not in the world of the book, but the one we sat in currently. Huneven nodded to the counter. “Yeah, you could see right over there,” she said, smiling. Honestly, the idea exhilarated me. Patsy MacLemoore! “The best thing is when people talk about your characters as if they’re alive,” Huneven said. Amen to that.