She was murdered in her trailer just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, sensationalized on TV news, and labeled a “black widow” by a marshal: Justin St. Germain’s mother was judged for her lifestyle both in life and in death.

A “serial divorcée” prone to involvement with abusive men, the former paratrooper is the elusive central figure in St. Germain’s unsparing debut. The author, a former Wallace Stegner fellow and now a professor at the University of New Mexico, avoids whitewashing his family’s flaws while revealing his conflicted yet undeniable love for his strong-minded mother, who died when he was 20.

Hoping to understand how a capable single parent ended up in such a volatile relationship, St. Germain explores his childhood memories while remembering the funeral, its aftermath and his stepfather—the main suspect, who later committed suicide. He revisits Tucson, where he was living when she was killed; Tombstone, Ariz., where he was raised; and Gleeson, 12 miles east of Tombstone, a “ghost town, one of hundreds rotting in the rural West, remote and dangerous,” where the crime took place.

St. Germain re-creates conversations about his mother with her former partners and the detective assigned to the case; he also weaves facts about Wyatt Earp into a startling rumination on Arizona’s enduring gun culture. But perhaps the strongest moments detail rural Arizona landscapes that mirror the hardscrabble inhabitants, from the “busted copper camp way out in the desert” to the “land rolling black to every horizon” smelling of “dirt and greasewood.”

St. Germain speculates on whether Tombstone, which prides itself on a legendary gunfight, has helped foster a culture of male violence and victim-blaming. “If my mother made a wrong choice,” he says, “it was moving to a town obsessed with Wyatt Earp, where a former deputy would kill her, and other men would say she deserved it”—a bold conclusion that distills history into a sentence, linking trauma with larger questions about the culture in a way guaranteed to provoke discussion.

Secondary themes are threaded into the main story: the guilt the author feels as he begins to forget details about his mother; the way he uses reading and writing to transcend what he sees as a “white trash” existence; and his unresolved anger over the manner of her death, all of which build toward the aching realization that no amount of reconstructing the past could explain the unthinkable, or reveal what drew his mother toward his stepfather.

With its unadorned prose and a brooding atmosphere, this is not a simple tale of bereavement, but an affecting account of domestic violence and its lingering consequences. From an unforgettable vantage, St. Germain considers early adulthood—and in the process decides what kind of man he wants to become.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

Son of a Gun: A Memoir

By Justin St. Germain

Random House

256 pages, $26