My parents married young — both were still undergraduates — and so by the time my father started graduate school in mathematics, he and my mother were the harried parents of three small children. They wanted us to see America. And so my father chose the University of Arizona — about as far as you could go from our West Virginia home without falling off the country's opposite edge. On our way, we stopped in Tombstone.
I was reminded of that journey as I read Son of a Gun, the gritty, enthralling new memoir by Justin St. Germain. Tombstone, Ariz. — the town and the myth — is a powerful presence in the book, brooding over its pages like a bad dream you can't shake off, even in daylight.
We only stayed a few hours in Tombstone, just long enough for me to beg and wheedle my parents until they bought me a cowboy hat and a toy gun. Just long enough to stroll past the O.K. Corral, site of the famous 1881 gun battle between Wyatt Earp and a rival gang. That's how most people experience it — as a place you pass through, your pockets filled with souvenirs, your fingers sticky from ice cream cones. It's a tourist town. But St. Germain and his family— his older brother and his mother, Debbie — lingered there. Tombstone is where the author came of age. And it was on the outskirts of Tombstone that Debbie, after years of bad relationships and a ragtag, marginal life, was murdered by her fifth husband, shot eight times in the rundown trailer where the couple lived. Months later and miles away, the killer's decomposing body was found, a suicide victim.
From those acts of grotesque and unfathomable brutality, St. Germain has created a work of austere, luminous beauty. Son of a Gun is written with a deceptive simplicity; it comes at you slowly, like a figure spotted against the Western horizon that moves inexorably in your direction, backlit by the setting sun, and only when it's close enough to do you harm can you look in its sad eyes and see that its mission is a peaceful one. A healing one.
You know from the very first page that you're in capable narrative hands. Recounting the sweltering September day a dozen years ago when he rode home on his bike, only to be told by his brother that their mother had been murdered, St. Germain offers this brief sentence: "The streets shimmered like rivers." Anyone who has ever endured an Arizona afternoon knows those streets. Anyone who hasn't now knows, too.
The author loved his mother, a petite beauty with a vivacious personality, yet he is forthright in acknowledging her flaws. She was restless and erratic, moving dozens of times, starting business after business, always sure that the next one would work. She was too quick to fall in love, and too slow to let go when the romance fizzled. By the time she died, St. Germain informs us, "whatever money she'd once had was gone: her bank accounts were nearly empty, she was carrying mountains of debt on her credit cards, and the only possessions she had to her name were a missing pickup truck and the land where she died." She had the best of intentions, but made the worst kinds of mistakes. One of those mistakes — hooking up with a moody, insecure ex-cop named Ray Hudson — cost Debbie her life.
Son of a Gun is the story of a quest, as the author searches for the details of his mother's murder. It is also a coming-of-age story, because St. Germain was a college student at the time of her death, and maturity was still well over the horizon for him; he chronicles his own failings and flailings with an appealing candor. And it is a keenly observed meditation on the dubious legends of the Old West, a place where men like Wyatt Earp strapped six-guns to their hips and never ran away from trouble.
The book is notable as well for what it's not. Son of a Gun is not really about guns or gun control; guns are present — how could they not be? — but not central. And it's not a whodunit. The author knows who killed his mother; he is compelled to find out why, and to explore how her death has changed him.
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.
Julia Keller, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, is the author of Bitter River, a novel that will be published in September by Minotaur.