Justin St. Germain, the sound of whose name I love, is a cliche slayer. That’s a high compliment for a writer. We learn gradually how to avoid cliches. And it’s a sign of a mediocre scribe that they’re not aware of cliches in their prose. Dull conversationalists talk in cliches, using the same stock phrases; their conversations consisting of little more than an exchange of trite expressions.
But Justin, in his searing, brilliant dazzler of a memoir, Son of a Gun, taught me that the lessons of skillful writing strike deeper than having a lucid style. Lives can be riddled with cliches. Justin’s mother, Debbie, and her fifth and fatal husband Ray, the husband who slew her, were sold on a cliche of the American Southwest. That they would live of off the grid in the great wilderness with their horses. They would live in their trailer off the land and off each other.
I especially remember the earlier boyfriend Max. So struck by people’s choices that can make you hold up your hands to your face and mouth: “Oh, no!”. But we shouldn’t judge. And Justin doesn’t judge his mother. He uncovers her. His pen is a torch. I’m thinking British torch, a flashlight. Justin directs the light to where it should shine.
Even as Max abused Debbie, knocked her around, she decides to marry him. What did she think? That Max would soften after they put rings on? From inside of a life we don’t see that life. You may in the past week have made one of the most dumbass decisions ever but you can’t see it. To readers of your memoir maybe it would be obvious. So don’t judge.
Justin as a kid in his mother’s car: They fight over something. Justin shocks me by threatening his mother with violence. Why? Because he has seen her boyfriends do the same. And he has seen that it works.
Perhaps if Debbie hadn’t moved the family to Tombstone. She’d been seduced by the carefully configured cliche of what Tombstone is: the romance of the gun, the attitude that you settle scores with violence, the questionable legend of the Earps and the O.K. Corral where the gunfight didn’t literally take place. Restaged every fucking day for tourists for a fee. So important? Why? Did you like the movie by that name? From earlier cinema history, I can’t think of Wyatt Earp without thinking of Henry Fonda. Wyatt Earp as noble? If he’s played by Henry Fonda, he’s noble. My God, it’s a John Ford movie.
I’m stunned by Justin’s persistence. The legend of Wyatt Earp plays a role in this story so Justin has to visit his grave in California. He has to, with difficulty, obtain the full police records from the crime scene of his mother’s murder. He has to review old family video tapes, never played before. He has to look up every ex-husband and steady boyfriend of his mother’s that he can find. Justin has had, I think, four stepfathers, including the one who committed murder.
Shaking me up totally, Justin decides to buy a revolver of the same make that killed his mother. Not morbid. By this point in the memoir, I understand Justin better. Understand and respect his need to follow up. The chapter on his visit to the tented gun fair is one of the highlights of the book. That’s where they sell tee shirts comparing Obama to Hitler. It’s not my world.
I left Justin emotionally when he mentioned, living in San Francisco, that he kept a loaded shotgun under his bed. Because there are bad people in the world and maybe the police wouldn’t arrive in time.
Justin St. Germain has written one the the great memoirs of the American Southwest. It’s a memoir without cliches, both in the writing and in the account. “Son of a Gun” is the apt title. Justin can’t ever be disarmed. Having been maimed by the gun culture, he has embraced it. His soul is armed. There’s no way to put down that weapon.
Justin St. Germain’s writing is so gifted that I teared up. I was greatly moved by the story of his mother. But man, it’s writing at this level of genius that brings the tears to my eyes. Son of a Gun has been edited by Noah Eaker over at Random House, who is responsible for bringing much outstanding literature to light. Noah has done it again with this commanding, unforgettable memoir of a writer’s mother. It’s an indispensable American story.
Available from Random House in August.