REVIEW: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

This book will come to be seen as a foundational work of 21st Century literary horror.

Past reviews have found me musing somewhat on the economics of genre publishing and how the industry flooded the markets with so much shit that it has taken literally decades for fans and authors to put literary horror back on a sustainable artistic footing.

While the genre is in better shape now than it has been for many years, this is not the first time that people have tried to rekindle mainstream interest in scary novels. However, because the publishing industry is full of bowtie-wearing imbeciles, the preferred method for rekindling interest in literary horror has long been to compare people to Stephen King.

I have always viewed this as somewhat unfair as Stephen King’s biggest successes were back in the 1970s and not many people compare well to the dude who wrote The Shining.  I mean… The Duma Key is not a bad novel but the guy who wrote it is no Stephen King. Indeed, the last person I saw being compared to Stephen King for publicity purposes was Ian Nevill and while I have read and re-read The Ritual more than almost any book in the last ten years, he’s no Stephen King let alone a Stephen King.

Nowadays, the author who appears to be collecting the most comparisons to Stephen King is Stephen Graham Jones and, for once, those comparisons feels entirely justified. In fact… if horror is due for a return to mainstream success then let this work be the tip of the spear and the yardstick by which all other works are judged because this novel fucks on every conceivable level.

The novel opens with a mail man named Lewis bringing a group of colleagues home to witness his elderly dog jumping over the six foot fence that surrounds his back yard. Lewis is a Blackfeet Native American who grew up on a reservation only to move away and drift into a relationship with a white woman. Despite Lewis being happily paired-off, his office mates have convinced themselves that there is a thing going on between him and another Native American who happens to work in the same office. The scene is beautifully drawn as while Lewis may insist that he has no interest in his co-worker, he is doing a really bad job of not leading her on. The visit to his home is framed as a bit of a lark for the guys at the office but everything about the visit makes it clear that the rest of the gang are only there as cover for the fact that he wanted to spend more time with the cute Indian chick. Lewis knows that he shouldn’t be doing this, he knows it’s a bad idea and that the Native American woman is both attracted to him and indifferent to the fact that he’s already in a relationship but he can’t help himself… he can’t even be honest with himself about what it is that’s he’s doing.

Then he finds his dog hanging from its collar on the top of the garden fence.

This scene sets the tone for the novel to come as, aside from being so beautifully written that it just grabs you by the collar and demands your attention, it also informs you of the emotional boundaries that will shape the rest of the work. The Only Good Indians is not just a horror novel or a horror novel about working-class Native Americans, it’s a horror novel about working-class Native American men and all of the horrible ideas that have been pumped into their heads.

 The kind of ideas we’re talking about becomes a bit more obvious when the action shifts away from Lewis to his childhood friend Ricky. Like Lewis, Ricky left the reservation in search of work but while Lewis landed himself a decent government job and a pretty white woman, Ricky wound up as an itinerant labourer getting wasted in a redneck bar and terrified that the locals will have a few too many drinks and decide to turn on him. Too drunk and paranoid to use the men’s room, Ricky decides to have a piss outside only to be confronted by what appears to be an elk. An elk that starts smashing up all the expensive trucks and motorcycles. Convinced that he’ll be blamed for the damage, Ricky tries to scare off the elk only to wind up standing right next to the damaged vehicles as everyone comes outside to investigate. The elk having mysteriously disappeared, Ricky looks on as all of his worse dreams suddenly come true.

The Ricky vignette is drawn with as much skill as the Lewis vignette but also serves to explain what is going on in that opening scene.  Ricky, like Lewis, has fallen into a rut carved out for Native American men by the century or so since the American government started to back away from its historical role as ethnic cleanser of the North American continent. Even when the cavalry raids stopped, the white supremacy and colonialist capitalism continued and those Native Americans who are alive today are under pressure to fit into a particular set of roles. While these roles are the products of a racist imaginary, they are also born of fixed ideas about masculinity and the capacities of the working class. To put it more simply, if you are born on a reservation then you could grow up to be an astronaut but it would be a whole lot easier for everyone concerned if you just settled down, took up drinking, worked construction, and maybe did a little bit of hunting on the weekends.

Hunting is an important part of the novel’s plot as well as its emotional topography as while America exerts certain pressures on the Native Americans under its political control, the same can be said for the institutions that comprise Native American culture. The Characters in The Only Good Indians may talk about being failures because they’re poor, because they drink, because they can’t hold down jobs, or because they can’t keep their dicks in their pants, but they are absolutely obsessed with the idea of being ‘Good Indians’.

The characters who tried to get away from the reservation acknowledge the expectations placed on Native American men but the characters that stayed seem to bathe in that shit all day long. Their horizons and personal ethics are utterly bound up with the weird expectations surrounding Native American masculinity: In essence, this is a novel about the absolute toxicity of the idea of trying to live your life as a ‘Good Indian’.

When Ricky turns up dead, Lewis makes a call to his friends back on the reservation. The banter-heavy call seems to revolve mostly around basketball because they are both reluctant to address the event that binds them together and bound them in turn to Ricky; a moment born of toxic Native American Masculinity that damned and doomed them all.

The event in question took place when the gang were scarcely out of their teens. A typical bunch of poor, dumb, reservation fuck-ups, they decided to go out and do some poaching in an effort to generate some money. However, rather than merely breaking the law by skirting various bans or blowing past quotas, the gang decide to venture into a part of the reservation that is considered to be protected and under sole control of the tribal elders. Venturing out to this remote valley in the snow, the gang come across a huge herd of elk and begin slaughtering as many as they can. More than they need. More than they can sell. More than they even want. More than they can carry back to the truck. They just keep firing, killing not just adults but young elk too. The scene is so unbelievably horrific that I nearly stopped reading. It’s not just that the violence against the elk is grotesque and explicit, it is also nihilistic. This moment of unreasoned, nihilistic sadism carries the rest of the novel.

The interesting thing about the scene is that while the graphic nature of the imagery makes it clear that the gang have done more than transgress a tribal by-law or dipped into a local Chief’s personal stash, the novel never makes it clear what the exact nature of the transgression was. Was it killing the young elk? Was it killing more than they needed? Was it killing on protected land? The vagueness of the transgression speaks to the extent to which the gang are alienated from their cultural heritage. They know they fucked up, they’re just not entirely sure how or why. This too speaks to the difficulty of ever becoming a ‘Good Indian’ as how are you supposed to live your life according to a moral code when that code is based entirely on the few poorly-remembered fragments that filtered down to you in those fleeting moments when older men decided to take an interest in you?

Regardless of the exact nature of the gang’s transgression, a spirit is dispatch to exact revenge. While the gang killed without thought or reason, the spirit drifts from transgressor to transgressor seeking out the root of their weakness; the point at which all of those toxic expectations breached their humanity and turned them into something ugly. The spirit knows the ruts that gang-members walk and ensures that their end is one entirely consistent with the ugliest of racial stereotypes: Like countless other working-class Native American men, Ricky got wasted and ran into the wrong set of angry white boys. In some ways, he got it easy.

Stephen Graham Jones’ engagement with the toxic expectations heaped on Native American men is most obvious in a scene towards the end when one-time athlete turned all-star drunk fuck-up Gabe Crossguns is hired to organise a sweat-lodge for the son of the local tribal policeman. Right from the start, the whole affair is a half-arsed mess as Gabe builds the sweat lodge out of rubbish and struggles to remember anything from the time that he was taken into a sweat-lodge by the elders of his father’s generation. At one point, the grumpy teenager who is being subjected to this half-baked nonsense asks his father what he’s supposed to take away from the experience and his father responds that Gabe is his future: A drunk and divorced failure clinging to a few scraps of tribal lore as a way of distracting himself from the number he has managed to do on his own life. This is not spirituality as empowerment, or even a means of sweating out toxins, it is literally just some drunk playing at being a shaman in exchange for a few crumpled bills. This is tragic but also unbelievably savage as it seems to ask what value these traditions have if all they do is turn generation after generation of young men into booze-addled jerks?

The novel ends on a more upbeat note when the spirit tries to avenge itself of Gabe by going after his daughter. Gabe’s daughter is the apple of his eye and is positioned as her generation’s Michael Jordan. Alienated from her father, Denorah’s head has been filled with basketball rather than the kind of lore that seems to obsess the men of Gabe’s generation. When the men are confronted by the supernatural, their first instinct is to try to piece together some story their uncles told them and this generally ends badly. When Denorah is confronted by the supernatural, she looks to the lessons that she learned on the basketball court. I won’t reveal too much about the ending so as not to spoil it but it is interesting that Denorah survives because of the way in which women seem to be excluded from the spiritual aspects of Native American life. Uncles speak to boys, not to girls, and Aunts do not speak at all.

While I am (obviously) not a Native American, I can recognise the sense of being forced into a series of ruts by the expectations placed upon me. As a child, you are at the mercy of institutions that tell you what you are, what you will become, and what will be expected of you. Many of those institutions have histories drenched in blood but even those that don’t have a tendency to pass down really shitty values. These values are difficult to move beyond because every time you look up you see those same institutions pumping out that same set of values. Even when you’re a fuck-up and you fail to live up to the expectations placed upon you by society, you still internalise the values that inform those expectations and it is so easy to become a part of the weight that is placed on the next generation of victims. It is so easy to pass on values you yourself know to be flawed. It is so easy to look at your wrists, see a set of manacles, and conclude that everyone should be wearing the same kinds of things.

The male characters in The Only Good Indians wind up doing terrible things because they could not escape the chains of their own upbringing. They could not withstand the pressures placed on them not only by America, but also by the uncles that make-up their particular form of Native American culture. Denorah is a fascinating figure because the failure of her parents’ marriage meant that she was effectively so neglected that it created a weak link in the manacles placed upon her. When the time came for her to continue the bloodshed and the injustice, she was able to step back and take a second look. That quarter inch of breathing room is all it takes for her to break the cycle and set herself free. Sometimes the only true freedom is that which comes from neglect.

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