Since I’ve been moderating the Cannonball Read these three last years, I don’t usually have the time or inclination to write a review of anything I read, but after finishing Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain, I’m compelled to write about this book and tell you all to READ IT.
On first glance, this slim volume of a memoir doesn’t seem very substantial. I’m really not sure why I picked it up off the new book shelf at the library, though the solemn-face little boy on the cover is looking out at the viewer so seriously that that may have had something to do with it. The focus of the book is St. Germain’s search for the truth about his mother’s murder, and I suppose I thought it would be something of a true-life mystery.
And true it was. St. Germain’s writing really is “compelling and vivid” as the Colm Tóibín quote on the cover states. He deftly slips forward and backward in time, revisiting memories of his mother during his childhood, jumping ahead to getting the terrible news about her death, and then moving to the present day when he is interviewing people from his past to try to get to the bottom of the brutal night when his stepfather, Ray, shot his mother eight times and fled.
Debbie St. Germain had been married four times before she met Ray. A former paratrooper, Debbie loved her sons deeply, but her bad taste in men and her forays into various businesses (flipping houses, restaurants, gift shops) led the family to move constantly.
In the thirteen years we lived in Tombstone, we called a dozen places home: houses in town, trailers on the outskirts, a couple of apartments, and of course, the houses and trailers and apartments of her boyfriends and husbands. It got to the point where I stopped hanging posters in my bedrooms and kept my things in boxes, ready to load up and move whenever she decided to sell or break up.
St. Germain goes over the police reports and meets with his mother’s ex-husbands. In telling the story of those meetings he also recalls moments from growing up with these men in his life and tries to reconcile those memories with the men they are now. His mother’s ex, Max, had beaten his mother and had come close to doing the same to St. Germain:
I dreamed for years about this moment, when I’d have grown bigger and stronger than him, and I’d have the power to avenge her. But Max is almost seventy now–he just told me he has grandkids–and what am I supposed to do, punch an old man with plastic knees in a parking lot? She never would have wanted me to become a violent man. And it’s hard to think of it as revenge when he’s not the man who killed her.
Also interspersed with the stories from his life is the history of Tombstone, Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
In fact, the gunfight didn’t happen at the O.K. Corral; it happened in a vacant lot to the north, between a back alley and what is now the highway. But try putting that on a T-shirt.
St. Germain’s writing is direct and poignant, and funny at times. A son’s journey towards the truth of his mother’s violent death could have been meandering, retaliatory, or preachy; but this story is not any of those things. He casts a keen eye at the events of his life and hers, and he does not shy away from his own mistakes but examines his actions in the light of who he is now and what transpired since those times. Does St. Germain finally find out what happened in that trailer out in the country? I’ll leave you to go read the book to find out that answer. I don’t know if Justin St. Germain will write another book, but I do hope that he has found some measure of peace, love, and understanding.
One owes respect to the living, But to the dead, one owes nothing but the truth.