BLAME, by Michelle Huneven. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 291 pp., $25.

Michelle Huneven's third novel opens with a lush prologue set in Southern California during the summer of 1980, tracing the experiences of 12-year-old Joey Hawthorne in the days before her mother's death. She's a child adrift among drunken or distant adults, old money and private clubs in fancy hotels - all reeking of imminent disaster. Joey's uncle's beautiful blond girlfriend gives the girl a beer and a Valium before she violently and crookedly pierces Joey's ears.

Then "Blame" jumps ahead a year, and changes the focus from Joey to Patsy MacLemoore, who wakes up from a blackout drunk on a bench in the sheriff's office. It takes a minute to realize this is the ear-piercing girlfriend. But now she has done something much, much worse. Driving with a revoked license, she swung into her driveway and hit a mother and daughter, Jehovah's Witnesses leaving literature on her doorstep. Both were killed.

The novel follows Patsy through her trial and into prison, where she initially rejects the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. "Patsy recoiled at the loser litanies and simplistic religiosity. She might have a genetic propensity for alcoholism, but she'd always stayed on track, accumulating degrees and honors and publications despite a concomitant taste for liquor, pharmaceuticals and rich boy wastrels. She'd been valedictorian andParty Hardiest in high school, the first in her family to matriculate into a University of California grad school and a California correctional institution. She, at least, had range."

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Patsy's ironic edge and her wild, obtrusive way of living in the world will be completely worn away by prison and the burden of living with her guilt. She eventually does embrace AA, and sees a very good therapist. She marries a pillar of the local AA scene, a man much older than herself who already has several children, thinking she will give up her own chance at motherhood as penance for the young life she took.

Because Patsy has no recollection of that night, and because - as even the bereaved husband points out at the trial - so many people have driven drunk and escaped terrible outcomes, Huneven has the opportunity to examine the issue of moral luck. Moral luck is the phrase used by philosophers to define a situation where a person receives blame or praise for consequences they did not have full control over. The classic example used to illustrate moral luck is two drivers running a red light, one hitting someone and the other not.

In addition to all this food for thought, Huneven has given us a wonderfully readable novel, laced with wit and insight. The plot unfurls for two decades after the initial tragedy, at which point a greatly complicating fact emerges. I would not tell you this if it wasn't part of the jacket copy:

Patsy might not be guilty.

Now just go read the book.