Arts & Culture » Book Feature

Ballad of a Broken World

Justin St. Germain's memoir, Son of a Gun, is a striking debut by a former Tucsonan



Justin St. Germain calls Sept. 20, 2001, the last day his heart was whole.

A 20-year-old UA student worried about flunking out, St. Germain rode his bike home that afternoon, the mile ride from campus whizzing by in the late summer sun. His brother took the call, and was still hanging onto the phone when he broke the news: Their mother had been found dead, shot in her trailer outside Tombstone.

St. Germain frames the prologue of his memoir Son of a Gun, released Aug. 13 on Random House, around his memory of that afternoon. You can feel the emptiness rushing into his world in that moment, feel the dread and anger come in a scalding rush.

The book—Amazon’s featured debut for August and a Los Angeles Times summer reading pick—arrives with the force of St. Germain’s writing, described in back-jacket blurbs as searing, brave, unsparing, brutally honest and “bare-knuckle prose.”

As Son of a Gun unfolds from that life-altering moment, St. Germain explores not only the story of his life and his mother’s life, but also the enduring gun culture in a town that’s made itself into an Old West stage show, and how closely violence prowls beside notions of manhood along the Arizona range.

St. Germain—a fiction writer selected for the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford after completing his master of fine arts at the UA—says he danced around those themes in short stories for years before coming to grips with the need to tell his own story, to provocatively confront his past and search for whatever answers he could find.

“I was writing stuff for a long time that was fiction that was about people who’d lost their mothers in all these different ways, every way but having their mother murdered,” he says. “Finally I started just writing the truth of it.”

Searching out the truth led him on a journey to the past, through police reports and family artifacts, taking trips to a gun show, a support group and back to Tombstone, memories kicking up like the dust from old wooden sidewalks.

He traced his mother’s history, from her North Philadelphia upbringing to two enlistments in the Army, years as a single mother who ran small businesses and flipped homes to make a living in Tombstone, and a series of failed relationships that led to her fifth husband, Ray, the former lawman who shot her in the trailer they shared miles outside of town.

“Of all the homes she’d had,” St. Germain writes, “all the temporary places with temporary men, the worst was where she died.”

Pictured on the book’s cover as a momentarily calm 2-year-old, St. Germain takes after his mother, Debbie, with her dark and heavy brows and heart-on-the-sleeve demeanor. After an up-to-no-good boyhood in Tombstone, he worked his way from Central Arizona and Cochise community colleges to the University of Arizona, living with his brother.

Knowing he’d be on his own soon, St. Germain made an early and less-reluctant-than-usual peace with Ray, who was a Tombstone marshal when he met Debbie. The couple married on Mother’s Day and after leaving their jobs to roam the West for a while, settled with Debbie’s horses on a remote plot of land. St. Germain visited once before the crime-scene tape went up.

After the funeral, St. Germain tried to go back to his life, continuing with his classes and getting on as a sportswriter at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. He began writing journals, burying his feelings inside a computer, and tried to pretend it hadn’t happened.

“In the two weeks afterward, I wrote pages and pages and pages because it was the only thing I could do. It was the only thing that was still working. My whole emotional system had shut down. I could express onto a computer,” he says. “That was the real first inkling I had that writing was important to me, that it’s the only way I can express something in a certain way.”

A reader from a young age, when his mother would bring him paperbacks of classics like Huckleberry Finn, and mysteries and Westerns, St. Germain started taking creative writing classes for fun. Writing seemed to click and he continued on to graduate school.

“He knew how to discover the voice of the story, which is more important than finding one’s own voice. He had a great instinctive feel for what makes a good story. So many writers, especially younger writers, have wonderful prose, but they can’t tell a story,” says Bob Houston, a professor who didn’t hand out praise often, but urged St. Germain to pursue writing.

“It was terrific to watch, because you don’t often see it. You see people who say ‘I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 5 years old,’ and as often as not, that desire doesn’t match up with the talent,” Houston says. “In Justin’s case, it was sort of the opposite. He didn’t necessarily think of himself as a writer, and to see that thought come over him and to see him start to look at those stories that he had, just to watch that talent flourish in a relatively short time, was one of the most memorable experiences of my teaching.”

For the most part, the stories St. Germain wrote in grad school are in the filing cabinet where they belong, he says. Most of what he learned were the habits he needed for the future. Jobs, however, don’t flourish for creative writing MFAs.

“I got out of grad school and I was at loose ends. I was teaching freshman composition at the university and I was working at the Shanty. I killed a year doing that, paycheck to paycheck, and I was writing a little bit but not as much as I wanted to,” St. Germain says.

Following one of the habits he learned in grad school, St. Germain kept submitting and kept applying for fellowships, and one April day in 2007 he received a voicemail he thought must be a joke. St. Germain was one of five fiction writers—out of a pool of more than 1,400 applicants—selected for Stanford’s Stegner Fellowship.

“When you’re from where I’m from, you don’t have any connections to call in,” St. Germain says. “As a writer, nobody has any reason to take you seriously. I’d published a couple little stories in journals nobody had ever heard of and then all of a sudden it’s like a calling card. I had something on my résumé that literally was the difference between people rolling their eyes when I said I was a writer and taking me seriously.”

Suddenly, unexpectedly (and perhaps undeservedly, he recalls thinking at the time), St. Germain found himself in California, realizing the youthful dream of escaping his small town.

“I moved to San Francisco and I didn’t think I wanted to keep writing about the Southwest. And then immediately once I was gone, I couldn’t write about anything else. I realized I was totally preoccupied by it. I was never going to write a book about San Francisco, because I could never see it. I never laid eyes on San Francisco until I was 26 and I could never get underneath that,” he says.

Living in San Francisco and writing about Arizona, St. Germain found himself thinking of home —and his mother—in new ways. Around Mother’s Day, he felt like he was losing it.

“I just found myself really, really depressed and kind of worried. For whatever reason, it took that long to come crashing down,” he says.

In workshop he attended at the time, the visiting lecturer was Irish writer Colm Tóibín, who drew the seminar’s attention to personal stories. And feeling a sort of permission, St. Germain started on the project that would become Son of a Gun.

“I was telling a story that I knew I should be writing. I never questioned that. I knew if I didn’t do it I was never going to write anything else. Probably nothing will ever live up to that in terms of what a story means to me.”

In the epigraph that opens the book’s second half, St. Germain quotes James Ellroy, from the crime writer’s 1996 memoir, My Dark Places: “Dead people belong to the live people who claim them most obsessively.”

Reading the book, about the murder of Ellroy’s mother when he was just 10 and a later effort to find her killer, St. Germain says he was influenced by not only the similarities, but also the idea that he had the proper claim to write his mother’s story.

“I really admired the book and when I got to that line, that’s basically exactly explaining why I feel like I’m allowed to write this book. There are a lot of other people to whom she’s very important, and early on I was struggling a bit with the idea of whether I had permission to write it,” he says. “This is somebody who’s been in a similar situation and when I read that, something clicked for me.”

Finding the Ellroy epigraph was one breakthrough, but settling on a title was a bigger one. A few months into working on the book, St. Germain was at his apartment, playing his iPod on shuffle, when Nirvana’s Incesticide cover of the Vaselines’ “Son of a Gun” started playing.

“Halfway through the song, it somehow clicked in my mind. That would be a good title and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It’s descriptive in a pretty literal sense because the book is a lot about how you become a man, and that gun was something that changed the course of my entire life and in a lot of ways made me who I am,” he says.

Having spent years keeping his mother’s murder to himself, St. Germain unveiled everything when he handed in the first pages of his memoir to classmates at Stanford.

“He’d made himself vulnerable in his fiction to a degree, but there was always a barrier. Once he started writing his story, it required so much trust and I felt honored he trusted his colleagues in the workshop,” says Stephanie Soileau, a Stegner fellow who now teaches fiction writing at Stanford.

“From what I saw from his attitude toward the book and even in the book, it’s this reluctant compulsion to write and tell the story. He’s not another guy writing a memoir about some private tragedy. He’s doing that, but he’s asking questions that are incredibly relevant at this time,” she says.

As he was writing the book, St. Germain saw his home state in the news over and over for its gun culture, including laws to allow guns in bars and to remove the permit necessary to carry a concealed firearm. Then came the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting spree that killed six and injured former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and 12 others.

“I own guns,” St. Germain says. “I feel pretty hypocritical about that. Where I grew up, everybody did. I don’t know a family from Tombstone that didn’t own guns, even pretty liberal families. You just did, for a lot of reasons, one of which is you’re out there in the middle of the desert. You call the cops and they might not even show up. It’s going to take them an hour and a half and that’s if they even bother. It’s less about being a cowboy and more about being better to have it than not.”

His mother was shot with her own gun, eight times. Confronting the misogyny and victim-blaming embedded in the notion that his mother had bad taste in men, St. Germain writes “We don’t want to acknowledge how simple murder can be.”

Looking through old family photo albums, St. Germain writes that he sees guns everywhere now. So, in between a series of meetings with old stepfathers and a heart-wrenching trip to a support group for family of murder victims, St. Germain visits an Arizona gun show.

“It’s hard to write evenhandedly about going to a gun show in the heart of the neoconservative Arizona. You’re confronted by pretty aggressive examples of the fringes of even that culture,” he says. “But I felt there was a responsibility to at least try because I don’t think the world needs another really sensationalist and surface-level treatment of what Arizona conservatism looks like.”

Beyond writing about Arizona’s gun culture in general, St. Germain turns his eye to Tombstone, the gaps between its true history and the Hollywood version, and the mind-numbing repetition of shootout re-enactments.

“There are all these interplays between Wyatt Earp’s story and my family’s,” he says. “Ray was a Tombstone marshal. He wore the same badge Wyatt Earp wore. For better or worse, that influence is still there. There are people in that town, the re-enactment fighters, who dress up and go down to a set that’s been made to look like the Old West and they shoot blanks at each other.

“There’s this construction of masculinity among people, particularly in Tombstone because it’s famous for this stupid gunfight, that when there’s something wrong, when there’s a conflict happening, you answer it with this stupid ideal of violence.”

One of the strengths of Son of a Gun is how St. Germain persistently seeks out answers, but never fails to make his own judgments and rely on his own instincts along the way. The presentation reaches truthfulness in the documentary sense, while remaining completely personal.

“I knew I wasn’t that good of a reporter, but I’d worked sports journalism and I had some rudimentary tool kit as far as interviewing and research public records,” St. Germain says. “I didn’t want to make it a full-on work of investigative journalism, but I wanted to try to reach out to people and do as much as I could and triangulate the story and include some content from other people, but in the end make sure it was still my story.”

“Justin’s book has this detective plot in a sense, trying to figure out what happened and at least make some sense of the tragedy. It’s almost like Citizen Kane the way it pursues the question of what happened and why,” says Charlie Bertsch, who taught St. Germain in three classes at the UA and later forged a friendship.

“Along the way, what you see isn’t just the nuts and bolts of the case, but this whole world, that really is the world of most Americans, that almost never gets written about in a way that’s not condescending or misguided in a social reformer sense. Justin’s book allows us to see, without prejudice, what it’s like.”

Though a memoir, St. Germain’s book has a structural complexity of being “propelled forward by the difficulty of being propelled forward,” that more closely resembles fiction, Bertsch says. “Justin’s writing very much falls in the Raymond Carver/Richard Ford vein, both the style and the kind of things written about. The difference for me is Carver and Ford are minimalists. They’re both Chekhovian slice-of-life guys, saying ‘Here’s a brief window of time.’ As similar as their work is, it really overlaps a lot with what Justin’s doing in his book. The difference is the messiness and the complexity of Justin’s book is not one that you get in Ford or Carver, nor do you get the sense of duration. “Justin’s whole thing is about going back to it again and again. He’s really interested in exploring the return to trauma and the working through of trauma and all the secondary and tertiary traumas that result from that effort.”

Yet for all the sense in Son of a Gun that St. Germain was compelled to research and write the book, the experience was a far cry from being therapeutic.

“I was and I still am suspicious of the idea of writing as therapy,” he says. “During the process, especially the first draft, it was the opposite of therapeutic. It was me revisiting the worst period of my life and it was hard. It took something out of me and I was on edge for a long time.”

Perhaps exorcism is a more fitting notion, he says.

“I felt like I’ve found the proper place for it in my life. Before, it seeped out into everything else and affected how I operated in every phase of my life.”

Jim Gavin, a Stegner fellow and St. Germain’s roommate for a time in San Francisco (who published his debut short-story collection, Middle Men, this year), says St. Germain hits the mark of being a great writer in his ability to write deeply about his own life while also presenting bigger ideas.

“It’s a great book and it’s an important book. It’s a very personal story, but it feels so much bigger and seems to capture a certain something about America and the male psyche in a way that’s pretty devastating,” he says.

“One thing I love about the book is in an age of memoir that tends to a certain type of narcissism, the book is so much more about trying to honor someone else and not put himself in the center of it. He’s almost a secondary character in a sense, but he’s the one who has to tell the story. It’s so much bigger than him.”

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