Son of a Gun: A Memoir

( 22 )

Overview

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

In the tradition of Tobias Wolff, James Ellroy, and Mary Karr, a stunning memoir of a mother-son relationship that is also the searing, unflinching account of a murder and its aftermath

Includes an exclusive conversation between Alexandra Fuller and Justin St. Germain

Tombstone, Arizona, September 2001. Debbie St. Germain?s death, apparently at the ...

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Son of a Gun: A Memoir

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Overview

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

In the tradition of Tobias Wolff, James Ellroy, and Mary Karr, a stunning memoir of a mother-son relationship that is also the searing, unflinching account of a murder and its aftermath

Includes an exclusive conversation between Alexandra Fuller and Justin St. Germain

Tombstone, Arizona, September 2001. Debbie St. Germain’s death, apparently at the hands of her fifth husband, is a passing curiosity. “A real-life old West murder mystery,” the local TV announcers intone, while barroom gossips snicker cruelly. But for her twenty-year-old son, Justin St. Germain, the tragedy marks the line that separates his world into before and after.
 
Distancing himself from the legendary town of his childhood, Justin makes another life a world away in San Francisco and achieves all the surface successes that would have filled his mother with pride. Yet years later he’s still sleeping with a loaded rifle under his bed. Ultimately, he is pulled back to the desert landscape of his childhood on a search to make sense of the unfathomable. What made his mother, a onetime army paratrooper, the type of woman who would stand up to any man except the men she was in love with? What led her to move from place to place, man to man, job to job, until finally she found herself in a desperate and deteriorating situation, living on an isolated patch of desert with an unstable ex-cop?
 
Justin’s journey takes him back to the ghost town of Wyatt Earp, to the trailers he and Debbie shared, to the string of stepfathers who were a constant, sometimes threatening presence in his life, to a harsh world on the margins full of men and women all struggling to define what family means. He decides to confront people from his past and delve into the police records in an attempt to make sense of his mother’s life and death. All the while he tries to be the type of man she would have wanted him to be.
 
Praise for Son of a Gun
 
“[A] spectacular memoir . . . calls to mind two others of the past decade: J. R. Moehringer’s Tender Bar and Nick Flynn’s Another Bull____ Night in Suck City. All three are about boys becoming men in a broken world. . . . [What] might have been . . . in the hands of a lesser writer, the book’s main point . . . [is] amplified from a tale of personal loss and grief into a parable for our time and our nation. . . . If the brilliance of Son of a Gun lies in its restraint, its importance lies in the generosity of the author’s insights.”—Alexandra Fuller, The New York Times Book Review

“[A] gritty, enthralling new memoir . . . St. Germain has created a work of austere, luminous beauty. . . . In his understated, eloquent way, St. Germain makes you feel the heat, taste the dust, see those shimmering streets. By the end of the book, you know his mother, even though you never met her. And like the author, you will mourn her forever.”NPR
 
“If St. Germain had stopped at examining his mother’s psycho-social risk factors and how her murder affected him, this would still be a fine, moving memoir. But it’s his further probing—into the culture of guns, violence, and manhood that informed their lives in his hometown, Tombstone, Ariz.—that transforms the book, elevating the stakes from personal pain to larger, important questions of what ails our society.”The Boston Globe
 
“A visceral, compelling portrait of [St. Germain’s] mother and the violent culture that claimed her.”Entertainment Weekly

Winner of the 2013 Discover Great New Writers Award for Nonfiction

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Like most other murders, the 2001 Tombstone, Arizona killing of Debbie St. Germain made headlines for a few days and then faded into oblivion, but for Justin St. Germain, her twenty-year-old son, that brief hubbub was only the beginning. Unable to find closure even after a decade, he searched for a way not to solve the crime, but to understand how his mother's life had reached that juncture; a lonely desert death at the hands of her fifth husband. To make sense of it, he searched not only her history with a succession of spouses, but also our shared national tombstone history of violence. An unblinking, beautifully written memoir; editor's recommendation.

From the Publisher
“[A] spectacular memoir . . . calls to mind two others of the past decade: J. R. Moehringer’s Tender Bar and Nick Flynn’s Another Bull____ Night in Suck City. All three are about boys becoming men in a broken world. . . . [What] might have been . . . in the hands of a lesser writer, the book’s main point . . . [is] amplified from a tale of personal loss and grief into a parable for our time and our nation. . . . If the brilliance of Son of a Gun lies in its restraint, its importance lies in the generosity of the author’s insights.”—Alexandra Fuller, The New York Times Book Review

“[A] gritty, enthralling new memoir . . . St. Germain has created a work of austere, luminous beauty. . . . In his understated, eloquent way, St. Germain makes you feel the heat, taste the dust, see those shimmering streets. By the end of the book, you know his mother, even though you never met her. And like the author, you will mourn her forever.”NPR
 
“If St. Germain had stopped at examining his mother’s psycho-social risk factors and how her murder affected him, this would still be a fine, moving memoir. But it’s his further probing—into the culture of guns, violence, and manhood that informed their lives in his hometown, Tombstone, Ariz.—that transforms the book, elevating the stakes from personal pain to larger, important questions of what ails our society.”The Boston Globe
 
“A visceral, compelling portrait of [St. Germain’s] mother and the violent culture that claimed her.”Entertainment Weekly
 
“Emotionally raw and beautifully written . . . a book you won’t soon forget.”BookPage

“Impossible to put down . . . Son of a Gun is a raw, compelling read that stays with you beyond the last page.”GQ

“A great, momentous undertaking . . . This book is brave, honest, savage, and tender all at once. It broke my heart, and I’m so grateful I’ve read it.”—Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award–winning author of Salvage the Bones
 
“There is a sort of gracefulness in the cadences, and a lovely control of rhythm in the sentences, which do justice to the themes of loss and love that are at the center of this memoir. There is also a level of coiled and accurately conveyed emotion, a careful way of telling truth, and an unsparing release of heartbreak.”—Colm Tóibín, author of The Testament of Mary
 
“From an incident of heartbreaking violence, Justin St. Germain has created a clear-eyed and deeply moving meditation on family, geography, and memory, and how difficult it is to find our place in any of them. Son of a Gun is an extraordinary memoir.”—Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds
 
“Intelligent and compassionate at every step . . . Justin St. Germain stares down his troubled Tombstone boyhood. This is a searing story bravely told.”—Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn
 
“Try not to fall in love with one of the most beautifully raw, brutally honest memoirs I’ve read—I dare you.”—Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon

“[A] searing, brilliant dazzler of a memoir . . . Justin St. Germain has written one of the great memoirs of the American Southwest.”—Three Guys One Book
 
“Taut . . . audacious . . . compelling . . . Admirably, St. Germain tries to understand how his young adulthood was shaped.”Kirkus Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Alexandra Fuller
Justin St. Germain's spectacular memoir…calls to mind…J. R. Moehringer's Tender Bar and Nick Flynn's Another Bull____ Night in Suck City. All three are about boys becoming men in a broken world. All three feature disappeared fathers. And all three dig into the reality behind the facade of the American dream: namely, that there is no glory in being a blue-collar grunt in this country, that to be working class is to live a tenuous existence…St. Germain's bigger story, the one amplified from a tale of personal loss and grief into a parable for our time and our nation, is about a place awash with guns and paranoia, where men and women toil at grueling, thankless jobs and make misguided alliances in a desperate attempt to defend against lonelines…if the brilliance of Son of a Gun lies in its restraint, its importance lies in the generosity of the author's insights.
Publishers Weekly
A young man wrestles with his heartache over his mother’s murder in this lacerating memoir of family dysfunction. St. Germain was a 20-year-old college student when his mother Debbie was shot to death in 2001 by her fifth husband in a desolate trailer in the Arizona desert, a disaster that threw into sharp relief the chaos of his working-class background. St. Germain revisits Debbie’s unstable life as an Army paratrooper and businesswoman, the string of men she took up with (some physically abusive), and his own boyhood resentment at their presence and at incessant domestic upheaval. Intertwined is a jaundiced, somewhat self-conscious meditation on St. Germain’s claustrophobic hometown of Tombstone—all sun-bleached ennui, arid hardpan, and tourist kitsch—and its presiding spirit, Wyatt Earp, archetype of the violent, trigger-happy machismo that he blames for killing his mother, yet feels drawn to as a touchstone of manhood. St. Germain makes harsh judgments of the men in his past (as well as of his sullen, callous adolescent self), but as he seeks them out later, he arrives, almost against his will, at a subtler appreciation of their complexities. At times his trauma feels more dutiful than deeply felt, but his memoir vividly conveys the journey from youthful victimization toward mature understanding. (Aug. 13)
From the Publisher
“[A] spectacular memoir . . . calls to mind two others of the past decade: J. R. Moehringer’s Tender Bar and Nick Flynn’s Another Bull____ Night in Suck City. All three are about boys becoming men in a broken world. . . . [What] might have been . . . in the hands of a lesser writer, the book’s main point . . . [is] amplified from a tale of personal loss and grief into a parable for our time and our nation. . . . If the brilliance of Son of a Gun lies in its restraint, its importance lies in the generosity of the author’s insights.”—Alexandra Fuller, The New York Times Book Review

“[A] gritty, enthralling new memoir . . . St. Germain has created a work of austere, luminous beauty. . . . In his understated, eloquent way, St. Germain makes you feel the heat, taste the dust, see those shimmering streets. By the end of the book, you know his mother, even though you never met her. And like the author, you will mourn her forever.”NPR
 
“If St. Germain had stopped at examining his mother’s psycho-social risk factors and how her murder affected him, this would still be a fine, moving memoir. But it’s his further probing—into the culture of guns, violence, and manhood that informed their lives in his hometown, Tombstone, Ariz.—that transforms the book, elevating the stakes from personal pain to larger, important questions of what ails our society.”The Boston Globe
 
“A visceral, compelling portrait of [St. Germain’s] mother and the violent culture that claimed her.”Entertainment Weekly
 
“Emotionally raw and beautifully written . . . a book you won’t soon forget.”BookPage

“Impossible to put down . . . Son of a Gun is a raw, compelling read that stays with you beyond the last page.”GQ

“A great, momentous undertaking . . . This book is brave, honest, savage, and tender all at once. It broke my heart, and I’m so grateful I’ve read it.”—Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award–winning author of Salvage the Bones
 
“There is a sort of gracefulness in the cadences, and a lovely control of rhythm in the sentences, which do justice to the themes of loss and love that are at the center of this memoir. There is also a level of coiled and accurately conveyed emotion, a careful way of telling truth, and an unsparing release of heartbreak.”—Colm Tóibín, author of The Testament of Mary
 
“From an incident of heartbreaking violence, Justin St. Germain has created a clear-eyed and deeply moving meditation on family, geography, and memory, and how difficult it is to find our place in any of them. Son of a Gun is an extraordinary memoir.”—Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds
 
“Intelligent and compassionate at every step . . . Justin St. Germain stares down his troubled Tombstone boyhood. This is a searing story bravely told.”—Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn
 
“Try not to fall in love with one of the most beautifully raw, brutally honest memoirs I’ve read—I dare you.”—Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon

“[A] searing, brilliant dazzler of a memoir . . . Justin St. Germain has written one of the great memoirs of the American Southwest.”—Three Guys One Book
 
“Taut . . . audacious . . . compelling . . . Admirably, St. Germain tries to understand how his young adulthood was shaped.”Kirkus Reviews

Library Journal
Irretrievably marked by his mother's 2001 murder in Tombstone, AZ, despite subsequent successes (e.g., he became a Stegner Fellow), St. Germain found himself back in the desert where he grew up with a string of undependable and sometimes violent stepfathers, trying to understand what happened.
Kirkus Reviews
A taut, grim memoir weighing Western mythology against a family tragedy. Central to this debut from St. Germain (Creative Writing/Univ. of New Mexico) is a horrific yet all-too-common act of domestic violence. While he was a struggling undergraduate, his mother was murdered by her fifth husband, Ray, who killed himself after a few months on the run. His mother was sexually independent, a former Army paratrooper and a small-business owner in Tombstone, Ariz., "the toughest woman I've ever known." Nonetheless, St. Germain was long concerned about her, as she married Ray (a taciturn cop who seemed like a "good guy" after several abusive relationships) and then embarked with him on a strange "adventure" that appeared to be an aimless drift through the Southwest. Before this, however, the author paints an acerbic picture of his upbringing in Tombstone: "Broke, single, getting fat, drunk, seventeen: I was white trash." St. Germain thus constructs an audacious framework for his memoir, indirectly implicating Tombstone's sour, touristy culture and the Western myths derived from the famous altercation at the O.K. Corral in his ponderings as to how his mother's unorthodox life choices may have contributed to her fate. Some of these comparisons are compelling, such as the author's examination of the unsavory distance between myth and reality in the real life of Wyatt Earp; others are less fully explored, as when he briefly looks at contemporary gun culture in his account of his attempt to purchase the small handgun that killed his mother. Admirably, St. Germain tries to understand how his young adulthood was shaped by the murder, and he considers the costs of the idea of American masculinity that seemingly produces inevitable bloodshed. Although he doggedly reconstructs the final months of his mother's life, any real resolution seems limited: "I know more about Wyatt Earp than I do about my mother." An above-average personal narrative that takes a hard look at the aftermath of violence.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812980745
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/5/2014
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 159,614
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Justin St. Germain was born in Philadelphia in 1981. He attended the University of Arizona and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. He lives in Albuquerque.

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Read an Excerpt

The Beast

Soon after we learned that our mother was dead, my brother and I went to a bar. We’d already worked the phones. Josh had called our grandparents, who’d been divorced for forty years but both still lived in Philadelphia. Grandpop said he’d book the first flight he could, but air travel was snarled from the attacks nine days earlier. Grandma was afraid of flying, so she stayed in her rented room in suburban Philly, wrecked and helpless. I called my dad’s house in New Hampshire, but he wasn’t home. Eventually he called back. I told him she was dead and a long pause ensued, one in a litany of silences between my father and me, stretching across the years since he’d left and the distance between us, thousands of miles, most of America. Finally he said she was a good person, that he’d always cared for her. He asked if I wanted him to fly to Arizona. I said he didn’t have to and hung up.

I emailed my professors and told them what had happened, that I wouldn’t be back in class for a while. I called the office of the college newspaper where I worked and told my boss. Josh called in sick to his bartending job. Then we sat on the couch with our roommate, Joe, an old friend from Tombstone we’d known since grade school. It was a Thursday, and we had nothing to do. Somebody suggested the French Quarter, a Cajun joint nearby that had spicy gumbo and potent hurricanes. It seemed like a good idea: I’d heard stories of grief in which the stricken couldn’t eat, but I was hungry, and I needed a drink. So that’s where we spent our first night without her.

When we walked in, President Bush was on TV, about to give a speech. The jukebox was turned off, as it had been since the attacks, because now everybody wanted to hear the news. Joe went to the bar to talk to some of the regulars. Josh and I took a booth in the corner. Orion, the bartender and a friend of ours, came over and told us he was sorry, and to have whatever we wanted on the house. I wondered if Joe had just told him or if he’d already heard. I didn’t know yet how quickly or how far the news would travel, that within a few hours we wouldn’t need to tell anyone about our mother, because everyone would already know.

I flipped through the menu but couldn’t understand it. We’d both put our cell phones on the tabletop, and mine rang, chirping as it skittered across the glass. I ignored it.

“What now?” I asked.

Josh kept his eyes on the menu and shook his head. “There’s not much we can do.”

“Should we go out there?” I didn’t know what to call the place where she’d died; it wasn’t home, because we’d never lived there, and it didn’t have a name. It was just a piece of land in the desert outside of Tombstone.

“We can’t. The property is a crime scene.”

I asked him if we should talk to the cops and he said he already had, that we were meeting with them on Monday. I asked about a funeral home and he said the coroner had to do an autopsy first, the cops said it was standard procedure. There was a long pause. My mother and her parents always said Josh was more like my father, difficult to read, and he looked like Dad, too, sharp nosed and handsome. I got more from my mother, they said, the dark and heavy brows, the temper, the heart on my sleeve. But if I was like my mother, why was I so numb?

Food arrived. Through the windows I watched the sky outside go purple and the traffic on Grant die down. A hot breeze blew through the open door. On television, President Bush identified the enemy, a vast network of terror that wanted to kill all of us, and finally he said the name of a murderer.

“Do you think Ray did it?” I asked. The police couldn’t find our stepfather or the pickup truck he and my mother owned. He was the only suspect, but I didn’t want to believe it.

Josh waited a while to respond, chewing, letting his eyes wander the walls decorated with beads and Mardi Gras masks and a neon sign above the bar that said “Geaux Tigers.”

“We’ll know for sure when they find him.”

A pool cue cracked and a ball fell into a pocket with a hollow knock. My phone rang again. I didn’t answer. My voice mail was already full, and the calls kept coming, from distant family, my friends, her friends, acquaintances from Tombstone, people I hardly knew. At first I’d answered, but the conversations went exactly the same: they’d say they were sorry and I’d thank them for calling; they’d ask for news and I’d say there wasn’t any; they’d ask if there was anything they could do and I’d say no. It was easier to let them leave a message.

On the TV, the president talked about a long campaign to come, unlike anything we’d ever seen. He said to live our lives and hug our children. He said to be calm and resolute in the face of a continuing threat.

“You think he’d come here?” I asked. Ray knew where we lived. He’d been to the house a few times, with our mother, staying on the pullout couch in the living room.

“The detective mentioned that. He said he doubted it, but to keep an eye out.”

I wondered what good that would do but didn’t ask. Josh said we’d know more on Monday, after we met with the cops.

“What do we do until then?”

I could tell Josh was wondering the same thing: what the hell were we going to do? “Wait, I guess.”

Behind me the pool table rumbled as the players began another game. I looked down at my plate, realized that my food was gone, and scanned the old newspaper articles from New Orleans pasted beneath the glass tabletop. My mother was dead. I leaned back against the vinyl seat and finished my beer, watching the president try to soothe a wounded nation. He said that life would return to normal, that grief recedes with time and grace, but that we would always remember, that we’d carry memories of a face and a voice gone forever.

Late that night, I said a prayer for the first time in months. When I was a kid, Mom had always made me say prayers before bed, and it became a habit, something I felt guilty if I didn’t do. I’d stopped praying regularly after I left home, but that night I prayed for my mother’s soul, because I knew she’d want me to, and I figured it couldn’t hurt.

I didn’t pray for my own safety; I knew better than to rely on God for that. Instead, I got up off my knees, pulled a long gray case out of my closet, laid it on the bed, and flipped the catches. Inside, on a bed of dimpled foam, lay a rifle, a gift from my father on my thirteenth birthday, an old Lee-Enfield bolt-action. I lifted it out of the case, loaded it, chambered a round, and rested it against the wall by my bed. Then I tried to sleep, but every time a car passed, I sat up to peek out the window, expecting to see Ray in our front yard.

After a few sleepless hours I got up and went to my desk. I turned on my computer, opened a Word document, and stared at the blank screen. I kept a journal, in which I wrote to the future self I imagined, chronicling important moments in my life, because I thought he might want to remember, and because it made me feel less alone. I would write about how much I missed Tombstone, how dislocated I felt after moving from a town of fifteen hundred people to a city thirty times that size, how I felt like an impostor at school, was failing half my classes, would never graduate. I wrote about girls. I wrote about money, how little I had, my mounting debt, my fear that I wouldn’t be able to cover tuition and rent. And I wrote about Mom, how she’d gone crazy after I moved out, how she and Ray had sold our trailer outside of Tombstone and gone touring the country with their horses, camping in national parks, how one day I’d get a card in the mail postmarked from Utah, and the next she’d send an email from Nebraska—all of them signed xoxo, Mom and Ray—and how she’d leave rambling messages on our answering machine at five o’clock in the morning, saying how much she loved and missed us.

I thought I should write something about that day, so the future me never forgot how it had felt to be twenty and motherless, my life possibly in danger, numb from shock and hating my own inability to feel. But I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do the feeling justice, that I’d choose the wrong words. I was in my first literature class at the time, an American lit survey, and I’d just written a paper on Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle.” So I did what any English major would: I quoted someone else.

My mother is dead. The Beast has sprung.

It worked. I sat down to write at the end of every day for the next few weeks, and each time the words came easily. Sometimes I return to those entries, when I’m afraid I’ve begun to forget. But I can’t read them for long without wanting to write back to my old self, to warn him of what’s to come, to tell him that the Beast will always be with us.

I woke up the first day after learning of her death and turned off my alarm, then went back to sleep until the room got too bright. When I woke again, I looked out the window at the yard full of weeds. I stood, stretched, brushed my teeth. Walking down the hall into the living room, wondering what I’d do with the day ahead—it was Friday, so I had a softball game that night, and afterward somebody would be having a party—I glanced through the screen door at the front porch and remembered.

My grandfather arrived from Philly that afternoon, pale and harried, lighting new cigarettes with the still-burning stubs of the last. We went straight from the airport to a Denny’s by the highway and sat drinking iced tea and watching cars pass by outside, planes taking off and landing, families piling out of minivans in the parking lot, other people going places. The world hadn’t stopped, despite how it seemed to us.

When our food came, we picked at it and discussed our plans. My dad had decided to come and would be flying in the next day. On Monday we had meetings scheduled with the detectives and the funeral director and my mother’s bank and lawyer, a gauntlet none of us wanted to think or talk about. My mother’s closest friend, Connie, was taking care of the horses and Chance, Ray’s dog, who’d been left behind. She said that my mother’s property was still cordoned off, that the cops were there in a helicopter, looking for Ray or for his body. We’d go to Tombstone in the morning. For now, there was nothing we could do but try to get some rest.

Grandpop went back to his hotel. Josh and I went home and sat on the couch watching pirated cable for the rest of the after­noon. As the room began to dim, I checked the time and remembered that I had a softball game in half an hour. I went to my room and changed. When I walked out carrying my bat bag, Josh asked where I was going.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Justin St. Germain, Author of Son of a Gun

Something that comes across so vividly and beautifully in your memoir Son of a Gun is the personality of your mother, Debbie. You paint a complex picture of her, but it is always so clear that she was a loving mother who wanted you and your brother to experience the world beyond Tombstone, Arizona, to go to college and to grow up to be strong men. And in this she succeeded. How much do you think growing up with your mother helped set you on the path to being a writer?

She was a remarkable mother, so I'm glad to hear the book conveys that. She always encouraged me to read. Even in the leanest times, she'd buy me books. She never let me watch too much TV, and she never scolded me if she caught me still awake, late at night, reading. It's funny, because she wasn't much of a reader herself, but she placed such value in it for her children. I wouldn't be a writer if itweren't for her influence.

Your book is not just the story of mother's life but also of her tragic death. It's a deeply personal story, yet in her recent New York Times review of Son of a Gun, Alexandra Fuller praised how you took your private family tragedy and turned it into "a parable for our time and our nation." While never coming down on any one side, your book touches on the role of guns in our society, issues of violence against women, and the American class divide. Did you set out to write a book that offered insight into these issues or was that something that happened during the journey?

I set out to tell my mother's story, but along the way I kept running into the unavoidable reality of how common stories like hers are in contemporary America. Which forced me to consider possible reasons for that, especially the ones you mention: our love affair with guns, the egregious and destabilizing class divide, and our acceptance of violence against women and violence more generally, especially as it relates to our ideas about masculinity. On one hand, I didn't feel qualified to tackle those issues directly, and was afraid that approach might overshadow the particular story I was trying to tell. On the other, I do hope her story sheds light on them, because while the blame falls properly on her murderer, those issues certainly contributed to her death, just like they contribute to so many other acts of violence.

When did you know you were ready to tell this story? Did you always know you would try and tell it or did that desire come later?

I tried for a long time to avoid telling it, to the point of lying about her death and my family background to most people I met for years afterward. But as I found myself trying to write fiction, often about characters and situations that weren't at all autobiographical, my mother's death kept seeping in. All my characters had dead mothers, the plots were full of arbitrary violence, and the themes of masculinity and grief and violence pervaded everything I wrote. I was never satisfied with my writing, because I was avoiding the story I needed to tell. Finally, six or seven years after she died, a mentor of mine said as much — he said I had to write the truth, or I'd keep circling it forever — and that prompted me to try.

The New York Times Book Review also compared your memoir to The Tender Bar by J.R, Moehringer and Another Bull—Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. Were these books touchstones for you? What books helped you chart a path to writing a memoir?

They were. I have well-thumbed copies of both. I like and admire The Tender Bar — I can't drive by Camelback Mountain in Phoenix without thinking of a particularly great passage from it, which I won't spoil for those who haven't read it — but Nick Flynn's book was probably more of a touchstone, because I first read it before I'd set out to write a memoir, and it helped me understand the possibilities of the form. There were so many others: I must have read a hundred memoirs while I was writing mine. Some memoirs or memoir-ish books that come to mind as particularly influential: Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life and In Pharoah's Army, Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, all of Didion's nonfiction, Richard Wright's Black Boy, Nabokov's Speak, Memory, Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller, John Edgar Wideman's Brothers and Keepers, and, for obvious reasons, James Ellroy's memoir of his mother's murder, My Dark Places. But maybe the biggest single influence was In Cold Blood, a book you have to reckon with somehow if you're going to write about murder in America.

You were a recipient of the prestigious Stegner fellowship at Stanford for your fiction writing. When did you decide your first book would be nonfiction? Do you plan to return to fiction writing?

I started writing my memoir about a year into the fellowship. I'm not sure I planned it that way, exactly, but it worked out well, because I had access at the time to exceptional fellow writers and teachers, and every kind of support — financial, artistic, personal — all of which contributed greatly to the book. I haven't written any new fiction in a long time, but I do plan to. I have an abandoned novel I started long ago that I'm hoping to resuscitate.

Who have you discovered lately?

I've read a few great story collections lately: Jim Gavin's Middle Men, Claire Vaye Watkins' Battleborn, Jensen Beach's For Out of the Heart Proceed. I also loved Domenica Ruta's memoir With or Without You and Gregory Martin's Stories for Boys. I'm currently counting the days until Jesmyn Ward's memoir, Men We Reaped; that book's going to be a game-changer.

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Reading Group Guide

A Conversation Between Alexandra Fuller and Justin St. Germain

Alexandra Fuller is the New York Times bestselling author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Scribbling the Cat, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and Falling. She lives in Wyoming with her three children.

Alexandra Fuller: This is a work of absolute restraint. The prose is in a class of its own. However violent and however uncomfortable or difficult the story gets, there’s this way in which the reader is skipping along enjoying the language so much. Where did you get your storytelling gift from, do you think?

Justin St. Germain: Well, thank you. I don’t know how true it is, but I think that whenever I trace anything that I’m glad for back into my childhood, it always comes from my mother. It’s always her influence. It’s funny because I didn’t really come from a family of readers. I mean, my mother read magazines and Chicken Soup for the Soul. But, from a very early age, she was always giving me books. She was always buying me books. Even when we had very little money, if I was asking for books, it was never a problem. And so I just grew up reading a lot: Westerns and detective novels or whatever. I think that’s where being able to tell a story might come from.

AF: I always say to students that to write and to write effectively, you have to risk being kicked out of your tribe. You can’t be like, “Oh God, everyone back home is going to read this,” because that is terrible self-­censoring. I did not think Son of a Gun was an unkind book at all. But it is written about people who most often don’t get to put pen to paper themselves. Was their reaction something that worried you?

JSG: I asked a lot of people for advice when I first started writing and got a lot of different answers. But the one that probably resonated with me the most was that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

AF: Carl Jung said that autobiographies should be written as if everyone’s in their underpants.

JSG: I’m going to have to borrow that one, I think. It might sound pretty callous on first blush, but it was a bit easier for me in some ways, because the person I cared the most about was my mother, and she was dead. And so I felt like the loyalty I had first and foremost was to tell her story. Not necessarily in exactly the way that she might have wanted it to be told, but in a way that I felt was both true to my own experience and still honoring her.

AF: She had this idea of herself as a freewheeling, free-­loving person. But that’s not how her life ended up.

JSG: I think it was pretty inherent to my mom’s story that writing about her life would at some point have to acknowledge the fact that she did self-­mythologize a lot.

AF: She was a serial mythologizer. All the way from her army days to being this sort of brokenhearted waitress to being a hippie to the way she fell in love with a “man in uniform.” She was addicted to this idea of mythology, as I think we all are.

JSG: You’re absolutely right. She was also drawn to the idea of the West and moving out West to a new life. And to that basic American mythology that a better life is just around the corner. In telling her story, I was going to have to get into some of that. But initially, I really, really wanted to avoid the Western mythology thing, because it’s what every­body in the world knows about where I come from. Tombstone, if they know anything, it’s the Wyatt Earp story, and I wanted to avoid it.

AF: What changed?

JSG: I met up with this boyfriend of hers, and he told me, in his own sort of mythologizing way, that the reason that he and my mother had gone to Tombstone in the first place was to see the O.K. Corral. I had never known that. I don’t even know if it’s true. But just the idea that that was what had drawn them there got me started on it. Then, once I really began reading up on Wyatt Earp, I realized that there were a lot of resemblances between the Earps in Tombstone and my family in Tombstone: the way in which they had moved there, wanting to put this old life behind, kind of like everybody did back then and maybe still does today.

AF: You do take your own personal story and make it a more universal, American story. As you were writing, were you conscious of that? Or do you think that with memoir, sometimes the more personal your story is, the more universal it becomes?

JSG: I started off just wanting to write a book about my mother. From the very beginning, I wanted it to be about her. In the process of writing about her, I knew I would have to reckon with the larger idea of violence, especially gun violence and violence against women. But I didn’t really know how to do that. That was one of the real anxieties that I had, and along the way, I just had to have faith that the particular story would start to reflect the larger themes on its own.

AF: As a memoirist, you are remarkably in the shadows. When you do step forward, it is so spectacular. It’s so restrained. And it’s so telling. I have this one favorite quote where you do step forward, one I underlined, and sent to everyone I know, saying, if you want to try and understand this country, you need to know this quote: “I ought to know better, ought to remember how it feels to live in a place like this, the grinding poverty, the lack of opportunity, all the kinds of self-­defeat—­alcohol, drugs, gossip—­the gnawing fear that you haven’t gotten away from the world, it’s gotten away from you.”

I think that one paragraph describes the small towns that you drive through in America. There’s the idea in this country that if you just work hard enough, you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps and end up anywhere you want. This is America. Anyone can become president. But you’re saying, actually, wait a minute, the ruts are so deep.

One of the things that you really make so brutally clear is, you don’t come out West, own a horse, and have all this land that you can then go be free on. It’s chopped up into little bits of barbed wire and guess what? You’re going to be working three shifts at a restaurant, just to make ends meet. You write about this kind of grueling hard work. Your mother kept working at these dead-­end jobs and then the money always seemed to go to the loser men that she attached herself to. To what degree growing up could you see that and think, “I’m getting out of here. I’m getting out of this”?

JSG: That’s one of the things that is often difficult to explain, now that I am out of there and kind of run in different circles and don’t really know a lot of people who grew up in similar circumstances. And, it’s not like I grew up in the worst circumstances. There are a lot of people worse off in America, and there were a lot of people worse off in Tombstone. But I think the idea of getting out was another one of those myths. It was something that everybody always told you growing up. “When you’re eighteen, you’ve got to get out of here.” But nobody ever said what that looked like.

AF: I had a hardscrabble childhood in Zimbabwe, but I was raised by a mother who kept saying, “Well, of course, we’re terribly well bred. We’re different from everyone around us.” In reality, we were poorer! But what she was insisting on was that we were a class above everyone else. As a kid, it made no sense to me. On the other hand, it also meant that I grew up with books. I grew up with a bigger sense of the world. And, when the time came, I could step out of my childhood. Did your mother also imbue you with a sense of, “Actually, we’re all a bit too good for this, we’re just doing it in the meantime.”

JSG: My mom was born in a working-­class, white, semi-­suburban neighborhood of Philadelphia. But she still had the sense that there was this other larger world than Tombstone. And really, I think the only reason that I did make it out, and that my brother did, was that she was always telling us that we had to, and that we were going to.

And, in the end, even though she had no money, she found a way to finance our going to college. . . .

AF: Did you want to go to college? Was that a big ambition of yours or was that a big ambition of hers?

JSG: That was a big ambition of hers. I started at community college and it was the kind of thing that I did to get her off my back, thinking that I would go for a year or two and then drop out, like a lot of people did. It was really only when she died that I kind of turned it around. I don’t know how conscious it was, if I was trying to make her proud, but from then on, I was a pretty good student.
Now I think there’s a kind of survivor’s guilt, where if you get out of a place like that, you can never really go back. Whenever I visit Tombstone, which isn’t very often, it’s this oddly fraught thing, because the people who are still there kind of don’t acknowledge me as being one of them anymore.

And yet, I also have never really felt, since I’ve left, as if I belong anywhere else fully.

AF: I think that’s beautifully done in the book. You describe going back to Tombstone with your girlfriend after everything has happened, and you end up in a not good place with her. She’s flummoxed, because you turn into a bit of a jerk. You’re both an alien like her and you belong to this place.

If I were to go back to Zimbabwe, where I grew up, the mere fact of my having “gotten out” would produce resentment. There’s a very real way in which I think the people who have stayed there feel as if they have been in the trenches. And, I somehow got enlisted out of the trenches through no good deeds of my own. Now I get a sense that they think I’m too good for them.

JSG: That’s the phrase that is always used: You’re too good for the place. That’s how a lot of people in Tombstone would describe it, too. But you still never escape the place you’re from. I went to New York and I met my editor and a lot of book industry people, all of whom are really nice people. But I felt like I’d landed on Mars or something, because fifteen years ago, I didn’t even know that world existed. I still don’t ever know if I can really fully understand it, even though I’ve lived in the sort of upper-­middle-­class, educated world for years now.

AF: I loathe asking this, except that I think it’s true. People will say to me, how cathartic was writing whichever of my books, particularly Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. My jaw hit the ground, the first few times. Cathartic, are you kidding? It was the most painful reopening of wounds ever. But, as time has gone on, I feel this enormous sense of relief and healing.

To what degree do you feel like once the thing was done, it taught you something about yourself and your history that helped you to sort of “heal,” if in fact you needed healing from the process?

JSG: I do get that question a lot. And, I had the same reaction that it sounds like you did initially. It just seemed like such a strange question, and also mostly beside the point. It wasn’t why I wrote it. I didn’t find it cathartic in the process, because I was reliving the worst experience of my life. Something that I had pretty much blocked out. After my mother died, it was almost eight years before I started writing the book. I had come to a point of just denying it, kind of erasing it from my personal history. In fact, the writing process was the opposite of cathartic, because I have to reimmerse myself in the emotional and psychological experience of the worst time of my life.

But, now I feel as if my answer to that question gets complicated a little bit, every month or so. I’ve been done with the writing process for a while, and it does seem as if I’ve found a place to kind of put my past.

I think before I wrote it, I was so anxious that the fact of my mother’s death might define me that I ended up defining myself by it anyway, in opposition to it. A few years ago, some of my closest friends didn’t know how my mother had died, but since the book came out, it’s the first thing that comes up if you Google me. It’s actually turned out to be pretty liberating, because I think you take control of that narrative. It’s not a shameful thing anymore.

AF: I couldn’t agree more. Until I wrote Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, my story owned me, because I was a little ashamed of it. After I wrote it, I owned the story. And it was liberating.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

1. The author’s mother, Debbie St. Germain, tried on many different roles in her life: soldier, small-­town businesswoman, “hippie” traveling the country by trailer. What do you think she was searching for? Did she remind you of anyone you know?

2. What did you know about Tombstone, Arizona, before reading this book? What do you think it would be like to grow up in a place that is best known for a gunfight? What is your hometown known for?

3. What did you think about the author’s relationship with the men in his life: his father, his mother’s boyfriends, his uncle Tom? What do you think it is like for a boy to grow up without a steady male figure to depend on?

4. Why do you think the author chose to tell Wyatt Earp’s story alongside his own? Did you appreciate learning the history behind the legend of the Gunfight at the O.K. ­Corral?

5. The author writes that for years he “denied my mother, lied about her death, kept her pictures in boxes, tried not to think of her.” What do you think changed that led him to need to tell his story and hers? Have you ever found yourself confronting something from the past that you’d been trying to ignore?

6. Did it surprise you that the author owns guns in his present life? Why or why not?

7. From an early age, books and reading were important to the author. Why do you think that was? What role did books play in your childhood?

8. Discuss the author’s depiction of the harsh landscape of Arizona. Have you ever spent time in a desert climate?

9. This memoir takes on large subjects: gun violence, violence against women, and issues of class in America. While you were reading, did your mind go to these big topics or were you concentrating on the story of this one family? Did the book affect the way you feel about any of these issues?

10. Near the end of the book the author writes, “There are no clues left, no mystery to solve. I know what happened. I just don’t know why.” Do you think closure is possible without full understanding? How long has it taken you to heal from a loss in your own life? 

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 22 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 13, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    Justin St. Germain is a brave storyteller. His writing is solid,

    Justin St. Germain is a brave storyteller. His writing is solid, if not polished. The story is mesmerizing though. The story leaps off the page. I couldn't put this one down until I was done. Then I felt emotionally exhausted. St. Germain takes you on his journey and it is a wild one.

    16 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    A total thrill ride. The author paints complex pictures of the d

    A total thrill ride. The author paints complex pictures of the details of the murder of his mother. It is a very well written, very interesting book to read. I give it my highest recommendation.

    15 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 20, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    A stunning book about a murder and the after-affects. In the pro

    A stunning book about a murder and the after-affects. In the process we learn about the author's mother-son relationship. The writing is very good.

    11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 18, 2013

    I got this book from my local library after seeing a review in t

    I got this book from my local library after seeing a review in the New York Times. Justin St. Germain tells the story of his mother's murder in conjunction with the story of Tombstone Arizona and the gunfight at the OK Corral. The story is compelling without being suspenseful, since the reader knows at the beginning what will happen. St. Germain explores the woman his mother was and how that led to the choices she made, and how her raising of him formed him into the man he is, and how he coped with her murder. He also ties in the death of a woman that had been a neighbor of theirs who was also murdered by her estranged husband. I highly recommend this book.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2013

    Authentic and melancholy, this is a remarkable book. Every word

    Authentic and melancholy, this is a remarkable book. Every word rang true for me, and the writing was exceptional.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 31, 2013

    What a book!! I read it in one day! Justin is so young and yet

    What a book!! I read it in one day! Justin is so young and yet such a good writer! His mother's love is always there for him and his brother.
    As a mom and grandma, I have to say Justin, to gain peace, you have to forgive Ray and go back to Catholicism.Your mother would want that and pray for her. I think her life went array because her parents were divorced and she did not get a stable moral life, which she deserved!

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 6, 2014

    I have a lot of respect for the author of this book. Justin St.

    I have a lot of respect for the author of this book. Justin St. Germain tells a very unhappy tale but one he and his brother survive. To me it's a critical book for those working within victim networks and officers in training. But also those who just want a good book. It doesn't leave you sad but more satisfied that the author somehow worked through the answers. It was a very good book. 

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2013

    Good - but not a page turner

    If you want a sit on the edge of your seat book this is not it. If you want an interesting book about troubled children growing up and how it affects them this is it. You also get a great look at Tombstone the town and it's history. I have been there so it was interesting for me to learn more about it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 17, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    Son of a Gun is an amazing piece of literature. The writing is g

    Son of a Gun is an amazing piece of literature. The writing is great and really draws the reader in. Five stars

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 13, 2013

    Son of a Gun

    I really enjoyed St. Germain's recounting of what he found out about his mother's murder. Good details about his mother and his growing-up years. I would recommend without hesitation, particularly if you live in the area where this crime took place, as I do.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2013

    Great

    details, told by the author

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2013

    Very engaging!!! Highly recommended!!!

    This well written memoir gives the reader great insight into the pain caused by a "senseless" murder. Although you don't ever get all the answes, this book takes you on a journey to discover why this tragedy occurred. Another excellent book on the Nook is "The Partisan" by William Jarvis. This novel also traces a great tragedy during World War II. It is based on facts and is only 99 cents right now. Both books deserve A++++++

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2014

    Fair

    The book was therapy for the author.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 4, 2014

    Good read

    This is a very well written book and an emotional story. I was touched by the author's honesty and how he shared his journey with us.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

    A very different book but an excellent description of what happens inside a family who experiences murder.

    An excellent portrayal of the chaos inside a family who experiences murder. The raw emotions were so accurately described. I unfortunately understand it all since my daughter was murdered 14 years ago. Life gets very confused. I appreciated the tremendous strength to look at the rawness and anger that surrounds a survivor. Very well written and appreciated by someone who has been there.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2013

    Not worth the time

    Slow, not much plot or action. A story that I had to force myself to finish. Disappointed

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2013

    L

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2013

    Bon

    Mom

    0 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews

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