Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Michelle Huneven is the author of the novels Round Rock and Jamesland. She has received a General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers and a Whiting Writers’ Award for fiction.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel Blame, and reported the following:
Page 69 of Blame, finds the novel’s protagonist, Patsy MacLemoore, adjusting to life at a prison fire camp in the hills of Malibu.

A year before, the 29-year-old hard-drinking college history professor had woken up from a blackout in jail to discover that, while she had been driving on a suspended license (again), she had hit and killed two people in her driveway. Thanks to a plea bargain, she was sentenced to four years in state prison. By page 69, she has already endured stints in jail and “receiving” (a 60 day period in which she was evaluated for assignment to the appropriate state prison), and has spent most of a year in Bertrin, a women’s minimum-to-medium security unit in the San Joaquin Valley.

Now she’s at fire camp, an honor of sorts, and certainly better than prison—you can be outside, there are doors on the toilet stalls and fewer restrictions in general. But it’s still not for the timid or the physically unfit: After her first day’s physical training, which consisted of a six-mile hike, Patsy thighs are sore to the touch, her face “tight and pink, as if scalded.” But she’s in luck because it’s Sunday, visiting day, and she can sleep till dinner.

The second day’s hike is nine miles, which is then followed by a full workday of clearing brush at a public campground using the versatile Pulaski, “a heavy hybrid ax, maul, and hoe.”

“They don’t call it work camp for nothin’,” quips Patsy’s roommate, Antonia.

By this time in her sentence (about a year in and, it turns out, halfway through), Patsy has started attending AA and accepting responsibility for her previous heedless and careening life. But here, at fire camp, she also has come as far as possible from her former life of middleclass privilege and intellectual pursuits:

“At Bertrin, Patsy had been in with petty, unmalicious felons—drug users, prostitutes, check kiters—but in Malibu she lived with killers, assaulters, armed robbers, anyone who’d done good time and had fewer than two years to go…”

Antonia, for example, has come over from the California Youth Authority, where she’d been incarcerated since age thirteen for killing her mother, a crime Antonia freely admits is “a doozy.”

Page 69 is fairly representative in that it finds Patsy adjusting to life in sobriety, working hard, finding sustenance in the natural world, and making lifelong connections. (A dozen years down the line, Antonia will landscape Patsy’s new home.) At the same time, the humiliations of prison and fire camp go deep and mark her for life.

In Blame, I wanted to write about someone who always had an uneasy sense of her own goodness. Most people are fairly sure that, at heart, they’re morally sound; Patsy, never. The drunken accident dovetails into this uneasiness and she will spend much of her life atoning, making amends, and trying to be good. Decades later, she will face certain questions: Does living a life intent on goodness make for a good life?

And, What if you’ve spent much of your life making amends that were, perhaps, not altogether necessary?
Read an excerpt from Blame, and learn more about the author and her work at Michelle Huneven's website.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue