Justin St. Germain’s memoir, Son of a Gun, tells a terrible story of lives lived on the margins; there where the promise of the so-called American dream has become a bludgeon with which to control the huddled masses, toiling away, terrified to admit that there is no chance – first or last – that they will ever escape the hovel and the struggle that is their daily existence because the odds are stacked against them, the game is rigged, the fix is in. No one dares to say that, because the powers that be have cleverly convinced the cogs in the wheel that complaining about being left to deal with just the grit, grease and shit by-products of the system is un-patriotic, weak, somehow a thing that only those “others” do; those others who don’t want to work, don’t have the courage to try, can’t make it. Real Americans – gun-toting, flag waving, freedom-loving, red-white-and-well, not blue – bloods – just keep tugging those bootstraps, waiting for that win.
Justin St. Germain’s mother failed to win, again and again. She lost everything to one after another bad choice, bad roll, bad economy, bad luck, and finally – to one final last man, she lost her life. Shot repeatedly in a trailer in the middle of the wild, wild west, leaving behind a troubled writer of a son [CLICK HERE FOR ST. GERMAIN’S WEBSITE] who has been asking why ever since. Son of a Gun is the latest version of his quest to make sense of this senselessness that is modern America.
The book has been widely and luxuriously praised, winning the 2013 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award in Non-fiction. With blurbs by Colm Toibin and Jesmyn Ward (among others) and glowing reviews from NPR [click here], Guardian/Observer UK [click here], and The New York Times [click here], I was eager to read this.
I wish I hadn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, this book is beautifully written. St. Germain is brilliant in his evocation of loss, paranoia, and almost Didion-esque in his razor-sharp limning of the landscape of depraved deprivation and dolorous despairing, the pointless, persistent pursuit of the next golden opportunity – all of which are revealed to be neither precious nor opportune – that is the milieu in which he (and all of us) was brewed to become this person he is today; somehow, someone who still manages to hope despite all the evidence the universe provides against hoping, all the proof that disappointment is – for most of us – our daily bread, and that optimists are little-less delusional than and just as addicted as crack-whores.
St. Germain makes that point in an understated way with gorgeous – but tragic – imagery, and syntax and structure and technique that would do any MFA program proud, yet, still, somehow, the writing is also deeply felt and truthful, and unsparing as well. He indicts himself as much as anyone else. All of which made me incredibly sad. Listen to this paragraph about his Mother:
I lived there with my mother for a year when I was fourteen. My brother was gone and no man was living with us, and I would sneak out at night and drink and get high and not even try to hide any of it from her, daring her to stop me. I’d hear her crying at night in her room, and I knew it was partly because she felt so alone, and partly because she thought she had lost me to the town she’d grown by then to hate, the town that had already turned her only brother into a hopeless case. One night I saw her through the window, standing in the backyard among the knee-high weeds, holding a hamper of clothes she’d just taken off the line, bathed in white and blue from the Chevron sign across the street, staring blankly into the distance, and she stood there motionless for so long I wondered if I was dreaming or hallucinating, if she was a ghost. I don’t fully believe that memory, but it’s the image I remember most vividly from that time.
That is a deceptively simple passage in which there are approximately twelve million emotions. Just the use of punctuation, the rhythm, the pacing, are enough to tell the story – many stories. But that it is confession, too, how much he knew, how well he saw, and what he leaves unspoken – the sort of pain it cost him to see her in such pain, and what that must have taught him. “…the Chevron sign across the street…” and “I don’t fully believe that memory…” – my god, simply glorious.
But, you see what I mean? It is glorious and evocative and killer, and it leaves one as depleted and defeated as if one had been confined to the trailer in the middle of the desert, gasping for air and longing for escape. That’s wonderful writing – which is why I gave it five stars – but horrible therapy for me (and a country) already depressed and starting to confess just how hopeless this struggle seems.
So, okay, buy the book. He deserves to be bought. But, read it with care, and balance it with something light and frothy and – or, fuck it, do what I did and just get dead drunk when it’s over, all the while hoping all my financial and emotional and man mistakes don’t have the same sort of ending . . . because I guess what made me the saddest is that while I know, sure as shit, I’m not going to have a happy-American-dream sort of ending, I still – dammit it to fucking hell – am brainwashed into hoping it might be a little better than Justin St. Germain’s mom got.
And that, my friends, is the NEW American dream.
As ALMOST always, this book was purchased at Frederick’s independent book store, THE CURIOUS IGUANA. CLICK HERE to support it. Or, if you live somewhere other than Frederick, Maryland area – support your OWN local, independent bookseller.