Synopses & Reviews
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.
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
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?