REVIEW: Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
There’s something ironic about a paperback copy of Justin St. Germain’s Son of a Gun. This not-quite-mystery is full of people wearing hardened exteriors, baked to a crust under the unrelenting Tombstone, Arizona sun. The book’s very existence assures us of a son’s love for his mother, and yet there is an unsentimental, almost hard-boiled quality to St. Germain’s writing. He adeptly conveys the grief and anger he experienced over a decade earlier, but puts up a firewall that prevents the intensity of those emotions from bleeding through into the present.
In September 2001, while the rest of the nation was still reeling from 9/11, St. Germain’s mother was shot point-blank by Ray, her fifth husband. Three months later, Ray was found in his truck, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The who, what, and how of his mother’s murder had never been in question, but the why continued to haunt him. His mother and Ray lived together in a trailer on an isolated property just outside of Tombstone, where they had landed after wandering the country with only each other for company. By all accounts, they had been happy and in love.
Although Ray’s motive remains elusive, the murder is in fact the culmination of a violent and difficult life, in itself the product of a violent and difficult landscape with a bloody history. St. Germain digs into his mother’s past, contacting her previous husbands — his former stepfathers — many of whom were terribly abusive. One ex-husband, Brian, who alludes to a CIA file on St. Germain’s mother and Ray, drags him to a shady presentation for a multi-level marketing scheme. Another, named Max, the most physically abusive of the lot, meets him at an upscale grill and picks up the tab. St. Germain finds himself incapable of finally knocking him out in revenge, as he had long fantasized.
St. Germain’s mother was plagued by a pattern of violence and difficulty throughout her life, and he artfully connects this with the similarly violent and difficult history of Tombstone and one of its most famous citizens, Wyatt Earp. The city has been unable to escape Earp’s larger-than-life shadow. A town best known for a gunfight that killed three and sent a murderous ripple through the rest of Earp family cannot help its bloody cast. St. Germain’s mother is not just a victim of her own domestic woes; she is yet another in a long line of casualties.
If Son of a Gun is St. Germain’s attempt to process and make sense of his mother’s murder, then it’s unclear to what degree he may have been successful. From a factual standpoint, he discovers very little that he didn’t already know about the circumstances of her death. The book is more of an elegy than an investigation, which is, perhaps, ultimately all it could be: there is simply nothing more to know. The only people who could possibly complete the story are dead. One of the most poignant moments of the book comes when St. Germain is reunited with Chance, the dog that had belonged to Ray, the same dog that St. Germain took in after the murder. The poor dog still acts as if he is haunted by what took place on that out-of-the-way stretch of land a decade before. St. Germain looks into his eyes, “dulled by age and medication,” and pleads with him, “Chance. Tell me what you saw.”
The greatest success of the book is St. Germain’s ability to convey this sense of unresolved frustration. If we, as readers, can feel so unfulfilled when we close the book, it’s easy to imagine how challenging it must be for St. Germain. The emotional firewall starts to make more sense in the face of so many unanswered questions. Memoirs about dead relatives are often an excuse to mourn publicly, but this is not the case for St. Germain. Son of a Gun is a slow-burner, full of remarkably restrained prose, delivered in a seemingly impermeable shell that shows little sign of cracking.
by Justin St. Germain