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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Son of a Gun by Justin St Germain – review

Justin St Germain, books 'Elegiac melancholy': Justin St Germain in Tombstone, Arizona. Photograph: Steve Craft for the Guardian

In September 2001, in the shimmering Arizona desert, a man shot his wife dead with her own gun, a Beretta 21. The victim was the author's mother. Justin St Germain was 20 then. This book tells his story – and his mother's.

Son of a Gun recounts a happy enough childhood in Tombstone, Arizona, a dusty, moribund place famous for the gunfight at the OK Corral. Stepfathers drifted in and out of the author's life. For a short period, he lived with his brother and their mother in an adobe shack in Tombstone. "It was the worst place we ever lived," he writes, "but I loved it like no other, because for a brief while there were no men around, just Mom and Josh and me."

Interlacing past and present, St Germain sketches his own background while alternately unravelling the murder itself. At the time of his mother's death, he was failing in college in Tucson and in debt. After the event, playing the role of investigative journalist, he tracked down some of the stepfathers. Canadian Max beat Debbie up (he wasn't the only one) and the author remembers the police sirens. Determined to unravel the murder, he excavates crime reports and interviews the first officer on the scene. Having recovered his mother's effects, he watches her patting her horses on old videos and listens to her voice on cassettes.

Ray, a cop, was Debbie's fifth husband (the author's father left the family when the boy was two). He was found dead in his pick-up a few months after the killing, and in his quest to understand, St Germain visits the spot where Ray shot himself too and looks at police photographs of maggots crawling over his corpse as it broiled.

Son of a Gun charts a journey through grief. St Germain confronts the problem of too much condolence, of "hoarding rage in my heart", of girlfriends who look worried when he gets angry. He attends a support group for relatives of murder victims, because "I need to see if I'm really as alone as I feel, or if there are others", and he identifies the various stages of grief: "The zombie phase, the denial phase, the rage phase, the writing-a-book-about-it phase." But in the end he acknowledges that he was looking for an answer when there wasn't one.

The murder took place the week after 9/11. St Germain notes that both events mark an ineradicable line between past and present, one personal and one national, and both a kind of parable of the Fall. Similarly, he adroitly uses Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral as a counterpoint to his own story.

Now a university teacher, the author hints that he has found some small measure of peace and healing. He moves in with a good woman – "Since I met her, failure doesn't seem so certain any more" – though still sleeps with a loaded revolver under his bed. He writes of "the choice I make every day: what kind of man to be?"

St Germain has a strong narrative voice that never wavers. There is much talk of sadness, helplessness and drink, but these pages never topple into self-pity. The elegiac melancholy of the prose lifts this book far above the standard coming-to-terms-with-tragedy memoir. The author conjures the remorseless trickling sweat of the southwest, the deadbeat self-defeat of its small towns, the decaying gas stations and the smell of dirt and greasewood. His language is parsed, effectively enabling him to skewer a character on the page. His father, who reappears after the murder, "liked to make small talk; it was the only kind he was good at".

In the final paragraph of this startlingly good book, St Germain imagines his mother's last moment.

"As a shadow arm rose on the wall, as she braced for the bullet, she would have tried to speak to her sons. We might not hear her now. We might not think we could. But she believed that one day we would hear her voice again and know that she had never left us."

View the original article here