Son of a Gun: A Memoir
by Justin St. Germain

Published: 2013-08-13
Hardcover : 256 pages
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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

Tombstone, Arizona, September 2001. Debbie ...
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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

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

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, August 2013: What makes some memoirs â??workâ?? better than others? Of course the memoiristâ??s story counts: and usually, an exciting story works best. And Justin St. Germain certainly has a dramatic tale to tell: his mother was killed by her husband when Justin was a college student living nearby in Arizona with his brother. But St Germainâ??s memoir, Son of a Gun, is strongest when itâ??s at its coolest--graceful prose, simple observation, quiet painful admissions of contradictions. (Better educated than his mother, St Germain prides himself on his self-control, but when a TV â??newsâ?? segment refers to Debbie St Germainâ??s murder near Tombstone, Arizona as a â??wild west mystery,â?? he goes nuts, calling and excoriating the reporter; while his mother was shot to death, St Germain admits to, still, owning a gun.) Even more impressive is the slow, careful way he constructs a portrait of his mother, a five-times-married ex paratrooper with a taste for violent men and sappy poetry. Who was Debbie St Germain and how did she end up shot in the back in her trailer? In this debut, her son looks deep into her life, his own soul and the heart of our culture to find out. --Sara Nelson

Author One-on-One: Domenica Ruta and Justin St. Germain

Domenica Ruta was born and raised in Danvers, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Brooklyn. Her debut memoir, With or Without You, was praised by The New York Times Book Review as a "luminous, layered accomplishment."

Domenica Ruta: What would you hope the experience of reading this book wouldâ??ve been for your mother?

Justin St. Germain: I would want her to think that it did justice to her, to her story. Justice is a problematic term but I think I wrote pretty overtly to honor her in some wayâ??but also not to make her out to be some kind of saint.

DR: As a reader, we see the way sheâ??s a loving mother in how she gave you everything she could but you also show us the stuff that she doesnâ??t have to give because she didnâ??t have it for herself. Itâ??s beautifully done. How do you feel about that today?

JSG: I struggled a lot with the idea that my portrayal of my mother would be the only portrayal that almost everybody would ever get of her. Most readers of this book are not going to have any other context. Theyâ??re not going to have met her. Theyâ??re not going to know anybody who knew her. But I think in the end, I just had to tell myself, "Look, itâ??s my portrayal or no portrayal and nobody ever knows she ever existed." I wanted people to be aware of who she was and what her life was like, and then beyond that, reflect on the way we think about murder and violence, especially violence against women.

DR: What writers do you find yourself returning to again and again both, in general, and then more specifically when you were writing Son of a Gun?

JSG: When I had just started writing my book, a friend gave me James Ellroyâ??s My Dark Places and it just blew up any idea I had of what I was trying to do and of what I could do. I was a fiction writer, and I didnâ??t really know how to structure a memoir, so I just read a bunch to see how other people went about it: David Shields, Leslie Marmon Silko, Michael Ondaatje, In Cold Blood, which seems obvious, but I think if you write about murder in America in any sort of literary way, you have to reckon with it.


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  "Son of A Gun"by macpac6 (see profile) 02/27/14

The book wasn't hard to read. You could discuss different topics such as domestic abuse, his thoughts about his mother's death and the history connected to his home in Tombstone. A big question was how... (read more)

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