The Only Good Indians (Book Review)

The title of Native American horror writer Stephen Graham Jones’s latest novel is an appropriate one. It alludes to the notorious quote by General Philip Sheridan back in 1869 that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” So right from the get-go, Jones raises the specter of historical injustice, but does so without being too on-the-nose. Such approach sets the stage for the subsequent narrative. The Only Good Indians tackles all the salient issues, addresses the various exigencies of Native American existence in the modern-day United States–racial discrimination, police profiling, poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse–but always in a manner that is organic to the story being told. Jones’s narrative never devolves into bitter lament; the author’s barbs are often delivered with wry humor. An influx of cash, for example, causes the character Cass to ponder: “In the old days, which means up until last month, forty dollars extra would have turned itself into a cooler of beer. Just, poof, Indian magic, don’t even need any eagle feather fans or a hawk screeching, just look away long enough for it to happen.” A few paragraphs later, Cash considers his own virility: “What he figures is that he’s shooting blanks, just like all the Indians when they’re fighting John Wayne.” Later, when told mid-ritual that a sweat lodge is the safest place in the Indian world, thee teenager Nate snickers and sardonically retorts, “Safest place in the Indian world? That means we’re only 80 percent probably going to die here, not ninety percent?”

This being a horror novel, many members of the predominantly Native American cast of characters do end up dying (the story centers on a group of young men who engage in an illegal and ill-fated elk hunt on tribal ground, and who are forced to face the consequences of their transgression a decade later). Jones is careful, though, to first build a sense of creeping unease–glimpses of a shadowy menace, disquieting creaks on a staircase–that makes the subsequent eruptions of graphic violence all the more stunning. The author is unflinching in his depiction of gruesome demise, painting mayhem in vivid imagery marked by precise yet unique detail. For instance, let’s just say that Jones is the hands-down winner of the award for Most Harrowingly Original Death-on-a-Motorcycle Scene, and leave it at splat.

The Only Good Indians is masterfully structured, with minor, seemingly throw-away items ultimately proving integral to the overall plot (this is definitely a novel that will be appreciated even more upon a second read). If I had one complaint, however, it’s that Jones’s chapter titles sometimes are a bit spoiler-ish.

Throughout his career as a fiction and nonfiction writer, Jones has established himself as an unabashed fan of slasher cinema. Such love, as many reviewers have noted, is also evident here, as Jones applies many elements of the slasher-film formula (one basketball-star character is even nicknamed, quite suggestively, “Finals Girl”). But at the same time, reviewers have universally overlooked The Only Good Indians‘ engagement with Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Both novels involve a devious female shapeshifter hellbent on vengeance against a group of males (each, hardly coincidentally, including characters named Lewis and Ricky) who wronged her years earlier. While Straub utilizes (less euphemistically: “culturally appropriates”) the mythological figure of the manitou as antagonist, Jones offers more of an insider’s perspective onto a frightful (yet not merely demonized) creature from Native American lore, Elk Head Woman.

The Only Good Indians is a haunting novel, one that stays with the reader not just because of the horrific events transpiring within, but also due to the beautiful language employed throughout. It might not be Jones’s best book (for me, that remains the ingenious Demon Theory), but it is a strongly representative work by an important Native American voice, and a damn fine writer, period.

 

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