America has a very peculiar relationship with guns. Unlike many other civilized democracies, it has some of the highest rates of gun ownership as well as significant rates of gun homicides and mass shootings. As a country that was literally birthed and formed in violence—through the enslavement and lynching of African-Americans or the slaughter of Native Americans—it’s no surprise that many parts of the United States, especially in the West, maintain a fierce devotion to gun ownership. Tombstone, site of the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral and a character in Justin St. Germain’s visceral and heart-wrenching memoir Son of a Gun, is one such place.
In the spring of 2008, St. Germain was taking part in a fiction writing fellowship at Stanford University and writing mostly short stories that referenced his mother’s death in 2001 in oblique ways. The writer Colm Tóibín was teaching one of his workshops and suggested that St. Germain write the story of what happened to his mother shortly after 9/11. Fortunately, St. Germain had kept some detailed journals of his feelings and thoughts around that time, which enabled him to return to that painful chapter of his life and get working on a first draft. Needless to say, no one ever wants to imagine what it’s like to lose a parent, let alone to have it happen in such violent fashion. St. Germain’s sentences—well-crafted and with an almost Joan Didion-like cadence at times—take the reader on a journey that explores his family’s past, the struggles of Tombstone, the way masculinity is constructed in America and the violent history of the West.
“The actual process of writing, even more than I expected, started to re-immerse me in what was really the worst experience of my life,” he says. “It was really harrowing emotionally to be writing about that experience. It took a lot out of me, at least for a couple of years, and probably made me difficult to deal with.”
In preparation for the work, St. Germain read and reread many memoirs and other crime-themed nonfiction, including Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and James Ellroy’s memoir of his mother’s murder, My Dark Places. Although he admits to being a little suspicious of the ‘writing as therapy’ motif, St. Germain says that writing this book allowed him to find a place for his mother’s death in his life.
His mother’s sudden death, and the subsequent investigation to track down her killer, leads St. Germain to explore his mother’s attraction to men whose rugged, stoic masculinity often conformed to Old West gun-toting and alcohol-loving stereotypes.
St. Germain, who teaches creative writing at the University of New Mexico, says that he remains ambivalent about Tombstone—the site of historical violence as well as the place where his mother’s murder occurred. He does a great job of weaving the back story of Wyatt Earp and his cohorts into the narrative as he tries to investigate the how and why of his mother’s death by meeting with several former boyfriends, friends and Tombstone locals as he pores over police documents and witness transcripts.
As with all family traumas, this one brought all manner of tensions to the surface, including the not-always-perfect relationship between the author and his older brother Josh—who seemed to have an easier time processing their mother’s death and getting back to the business of everyday life. One such moment, not long after her death and immediately after Josh makes a joke about the author’s age, is a preview of the memoir’s volatile emotional landscape and also a fine example of St. Germain’s sinewy prose:
I knew Josh was only giving me a hard time, trying to act normally. But a senseless and indiscriminate rage had been rising inside me like a warm tide: rage at the professionals for their paperwork and their grim efficiency in helping us erase my mother; rage at the police for their failure to find the killer; rage at my family for our bumbling helplessness; rage at Ray for what he’d done; rage at my mother for her delusions—that harebrained life she tried to live, that ridiculous will—and most of all for dying. And rage at myself, for my own incompetence, for failing to prevent or remedy any of this, for being another angry, useless man.
With Son of a Gun, St. Germain has taken a sad personal story of loss and turned it into a telling and smart memoir told in a knowing and brutally honest voice that’s stripped of sentimentality or saccharine-coated feel-goodism. No family can escape its past or undo its mistakes, all sons are always trying to live up to their mother’s expectations, memory can play strange tricks on you and a deeply-rooted culture of gun violence is difficult to escape. These Western guys, the rough-hewn men that his mother dated and broke up with a few times, are not by their nature outwardly emotive or ostentatiously analytical—which could be part of why his mother, and other women, are attracted to them. In writing this compassionate memoir, bravely resurrecting such a difficult time in his life, St. Germain has become the man his mother would be proud of.
Christopher Carbone is a writer living in New York City. He also writes for The Guardian and Urban Times. Follow him on Twitter.