Blame is a sprawling novel following the life of Patsy, a college history professor living in California, from her twenties to her sixties. We first meet her when she is drunk and high, and she gets a young girl drunk. There's an episode soon after this where Patsy goes out partying and as she often does, blacks out from drinking so much. She wakes up to find that she is accused of being responsible of killing two woman--a mother and daughter--in a road accident, outside her own home. She goes to the state penitentiary for 4 years. In prison, she starts on the road to recovery from her alcoholism, and joins AA. She comes out a much changed woman. The bulk of the novel follows her through her increasingly successful career, her friendships, and her tumultuous romantic life, all the time continuing to go to AA.
Other reviews are full of praise for this novel, one commends the characterization, the dialog, and the observations. Another says that the book's depiction of Southern California rate among the best. I am amazed by these assessments. The dramatic plot twists are either highly implausible or completely predictable. Patsy is not a particularly interesting main character, and the secondary characters are boring because they have little going on. I didn't care about Southern California before reading the book, and if the book is a revealing depiction of the culture there, I care even less now.
As Patsy comes to grips with her what her alcoholism did to her, she also feels some more regret for causing the death of the two women. Once she gets out of prison and is allowed to return to her college job, she decides to have no children, and this seems related to her feelings of guilt; she does not see herself as deserving a rich life, maybe. But we find little about how she feels about it -- she has no memory of the accident and it does not seem to have much meaning for her. She does judge her former partying self. She used to drive drunk on a regular basis, and had sex with lots of married men. At the time she thought she was a fun person and she comes to see her old behavior as despicable and irresponsible. This is hardly a stunning insight.
More than this, the diction of AA is unrevealing. We get a much better feeling for an AA meeting from a 3 minute scene in Rachel Getting Married than from the whole of this novel. At one point in the novel, Patsy marries a man, Cal, who is “big” in AA. This is confusing, because AA is meant to be anonymous so no one is meant to have any reputation at all. But even if we accept this plot development, Cal is tiresome in his insistence on the AA credo and uninspiring, because he comes from a rich family and basically lives off the money he inherited.
Blame has all the insight of a TV soap opera about guilt, alcoholism and reclaiming a life. I listened to the unabridged audiobook read by Hillary Huber, who keeps the characters separate with good vocal variation. This and the relatively brisk moving plot given the reader enough motivation to keep listening, but not enough to really care what happens. Despite the heaviness of the premise of the novel, it is relentlessly shallow, and by the end, after the revelations unfold, they make little difference. So what might have been a provocative exploration of what's living with guilt as an alcoholic is, instead, a forgettable plane novel.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.