COVER“Son of a Gun – A Memoir” by Justin St. Germain

Random House, $26, 242 pp.

Justin St. Germain talks about his new memoir “Son of a Gun” at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29 at Collected Works, 202 Galisteo, Santa Fe and at 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31 at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW, Albuquerque.

By David Steinberg

Read Justin St. Germain’s new book and you walk away with a mouth full of grit from the author’s rough-riding journeys. That’s because much of “Son of a Gun, A Memoir” takes the reader through dusty southern Arizona, tourist town Tombstone, Ariz., in particular.

You could describe this newly published book as a three-sided memoir. One side recounts St. Germain’s personal investigation of the death of his loving mother, Debbie, in a house trailer near Tombstone. She was shot eight times. Apparently shot and killed by Ray, a former cop who was her most recent husband.

“Apparently” because Ray killed himself before cops could interview him. His body was found near Caballo Lake in southern New Mexico. A suicide note did not contain an admission of guilt in his wife’s murder. Ray did acknowledge a life of failures.

Another side is the author’s search for understanding of his mother’s life, and of growing up in a hardscrabble existence with his older brother Josh and with assorted adult males – his father whom the author hardly knew, his uncle Tom, stepfathers and mother’s boyfriends. Debbie is a tough, caring, hard-working lady. She tries to make her relationships work; usually they don’t.

A third side of the book’s memoir structure is St. Germain’s own coming-of-age story. His mischief, his drinking, his remembrances and his self-examinations are woven through vignettes and commentaries. You wonder how he managed to grow into an intelligent, productive and emotionally stable adult.

Which he certainly is. St. Germain was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford and is now Joseph Russo Professor of Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico.

Justin St Germain Photo (c) William B Bledsoe (2)There’s even a fourth aspect  to this book. It’s not memoir but is essential to an understanding of the memoir: You are given the life and times of Wyatt Earp and the historic Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The Earp story forms a backdrop. It connects to St. Germain’s fact-finding of Debbie’s murder, to gun-toting Tombstone residents, to the overarching theme of guns and violence in America.

Here’s an excerpt from the book: “When my mother and Brian went to Tombstone that day to see the O.K. Corral, she was about the same age Wyatt had been when he arrived, and like him she was looking to start over. …They went to Tombstone to see the O.K. Corral and left with leases on a house and a restaurant.”

Two pages before, St. Germain writes of Earp,  age 31, coming to Tombstone in 1879 “searching for a better life. He’d made a reputation for bravery as a lawman in Kansas, but it was dangerous work and there wasn’t any money in it. Tombstone was a remote silver camp in the throes of a breakneck boom…”

The famous O.K. Corral gunfight was in October 1881. The three Earp brothers and friend Doc Holliday survived it. But their fortunes changed. Tombstone, St. Germain writes, “turned on the Earps. Murder charges were filed, then dismissed. Their political alliances and business interests soured. Two of the Earp brothers were ambushed in revenge. Virgil crippled and Morgan killed, which sent Wyatt on a murderous rampage. …By the time Wyatt finally left Tombstone, 2 1/2 years after he’d arrived, he’d lost a brother, most of his money, many of his friends, and his good name.”

Despite all this, Wyatt Earp’s name has become synonymous with the town because, St. Germain writes, “it needed a story to survive.”

The reader comes away thinking that the Tombstone of the early 21st century is as lawless as the Tombstone of the 1880s.

On the book’s penultimate page, St. Germain cinematically re-constructs the final moments of his mother’s murder and what she might have been thinking of Ray – “She never would have thought he’d shoot her in the back.”

Read aloud to yourself the book’s final paragraph as  St. Germain re- imagines his mother’s dying thoughts “of her parents, her brother, her horses, God. And her children. Where we were. How we’d hear …” The effect is dramatic, heart-rending.