It’s the story of Justin’s life with his mother, Debbie, through her multiple moves and marriages; of her death due to gunshots fired by her final husband, Ray; and of Justin’s life after: telling or not telling people, being angry and showing it, or not; recalling her while moving into a life of his own, which felt artificial in some ways, partly because he was not telling people and not showing his anger, partly because of course it felt unreal: his mother died a violent death in a trailer while he was in college and how is he supposed to understand that as an integral part of his life?
The book opens with the moment he learns of her death, and then traces forward simultaneously through Justin’s childhood and through the aftermath of her death. Justin and his brother are left to deal with practicalities while Ray is still at large; the case is closed a few months later, in way that is only a marginally satisfactory. Justin eventually returns to Tombstone, AZ, where he was raised, to trace the landscape and his own history there—growing up in trailers; sharing his mother with her horses and her husbands; being drunk, stoned, resentful and occasionally violent; and always owning guns. He tracks down some of his former stepfathers, in some of the strangest and best parts of the book. Justin’s observations on them are so funny, so bizarre. He can never see—so neither can we—what Debbie saw in them. She was smart, ambitious, unconventional. Also military, and also a free spirit. Also religious, and the marrying kind. She was all that. She was rare.
In some ways, it’s a book about how little Justin can know and how little has changed—in the world, and in Justin’s own psyche. The mystery of who did it seems to be solved very early on, and yet there is a strangely monolithic atmosphere of mystery pervading the entire book, from start to finish. It seems clear that Ray must have done it—they were always together, and he took off the day she died—but an air of unreality surrounds Justin’s efforts to describe and dissect Debbie’s marriage and her final moments. Justin doesn’t stop himself from including good memories of Ray, a husband who didn’t seem to be abusive, although even Debbie’s most abusive husbands weren’t that way at the start. Still, Justin seems to have liked Ray, more or less. As much as he could, for someone he also considered a little beneath him. Beneath them.
Justin’s portrait of his mother—her passions, her ungraspability, her drive, the things she seemed to do right, from his point of view, and the things she did that infuriated or disappointed him, delivered seemingly without judgment or nostalgia—was enormously moving and admirable. Other reviewers have said that, by the end of the book, we know Debbie. They have generalized about her: that she was incorrigibly optimistic, that she was trying to fix these men. I disagree—I still didn’t know her as well as I wanted to, and the book lacks analyses by close friends or family, which perhaps would not have been revealing. Regardless, the portrait feels accurate to the way I think we know even those closest to us, in parts and impressions—their characteristics and our own reactions. Justin’s portrayal did not make us feel that his mother was gone or ossified, but rather still a dynamic, however quicksilver, presence in his life. It would have been easy to make of her a saint or martyr, and even while we expect this sort of raw honesty and penetration from our best writers, this is a mark of his place in that echelon.
I had known for some time that Justin slept with a loaded gun under his bed. His reason? “In case there’s a man at the door who means me harm. My friends in San Francisco tell me that if that happens, I should call the police; I tell them that the police won’t show up in time to save them, and will only catch their killer half the time. Nobody ever wins the argument. They don’t believe in the man at the door. I do. I’ve met him.” I wonder how it feels for him to have this story of his out in the world. While I suspect he has some relief, it must also be very strange. Despite the accuracy of this unsettling material to his experience and his feelings, surely his thinking—about his mother, his relationship to her, to his present and the ways the past pokes up—must continue to evolve.
For all it is so raw, the book left me with a sense of wholeness and endurance—that Justin’s mother, however short her years, made her son feel secure in her love, and that he inherited her grit.