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The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones review – an immersive examination of Native American experience and beliefs

The Only Good Indians deals – with a dream-like sense of inevitability – with the fall-out from a hunting trip gone wrong. Ricky, Lewis, Cass and Gabe are four very different Blackfeet men, born and raised on the reservation, taking their last opportunity to hunt together that season. But the elk are all in the section of forest reserved for the elders, and they transgress, crossing the boundary and shooting wild-eyed with “buck fever” at an enormous herd. In the frenzy, Lewis kills a yellow-eyed and pregnant female elk who seems to refuse to die; he forms a connection to her. The trip costs them dearly – losing their rights to hunt on reservation land – and, ten years on, Lewis struggles with a profound sense of guilt.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones book cover

The novel doesn’t open on that story, however, in a neat bit of background mystery that had me turning pages wanting to get to the bottom of “what happened with the elk”. Instead, it starts with Ricky, who’s left the reservation to find work after his little brother took an overdose, “the television tuned to that camera that just looks down on the IGA parking lot all the time… it was just a running reminder how shit the reservation was, how boring, how nothing”. The immersion into Ricky’s point of view and the pervasive disadvantage and racism experienced by all four characters is immediate, and we stay with Ricky just long enough for an elk to get him into a fight which ends with him beaten to death by truckers, “Indian Man Killed in Dispute Outside Bar”.

The reader is sucked into the world of the novel. Jones is Blackfeet Native American himself, and his portrayal is meticulously detailed, from the blend of traditional and modern in Gabe and Cass’s sweat-lodge (built from tent frames and covered with layers of sleeping bags) to the way each character’s experiences are mediated not only through their cultural heritage but their own unique relationship with that heritage. He tackles perception and stereotype head-on, making clear that there’s no one way to be a “good Indian”; an often moving reverence for traditional culture is cut through with recognition of the nuance which portrayals of modern Native American life sometimes lack.

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Lewis, our narrator for the first half of the novel, has left the reservation and married a white woman, and is full of wry asides about the stereotypes: “he deserves some big Indian award for having made it to thirty-six without… diabetes and high blood pressure and leukemia… for having avoided all the car crashes and jail time and alcoholism on his cultural dance card.” There’s not a lot of hand-holding when it comes to traditional Blackfeet culture or life on the reservation – Jones rarely explains what his characters take for granted – and the novel is stronger and more inviting for it. I found this aspect really came into its own when the narrative took us back to the reservation and into the head of Denorah, Gabe’s teenage daughter. In a very deft sequence, we hear her views on how “[Indians are] old time plow horses, all just waking straight down their own row, trying not to see what’s going on right next to them” then see a scene of near-devastation: men missing, the sweat-lodge on fire, chairs smashed up, horses and dogs gone. Denorah’s acceptance of that scene as unworthy of suspicion is absolutely spine-chilling, as she makes small talk and shoots basketball with a strange woman while the reader positively bathes in rising dread; Denorah is the “old time plow horse” she dismisses, and in life-threatening danger as a result.

Jones has a real gift for taking the reader into the heart of a character: Ricky, for example “knew that, had he been around back in the days of raiding and running down buffalo, he’d have been a grunt then as well. Whatever the bow and arrow version of a chain monkey was, that’d be Ricky Boss Ribs’s station”. Denorah, who’s smart and single-minded and ambitious, doodles her own grades in a spiral notebook “with the lightest pencil. It’s her way of reminding herself that they’re not stable, that they can change in an instant.” This deft touch is applied to secondary characters as well, and there’s a particularly stomach-turning encounter between Lewis and the police which drips with understated menace, “that thing rising in [the officer’s] voice that isn’t so much saying this call can go bad, but that he’s kind of hoping it will.”

This horror, firmly grounded in the challenges of being “othered” by modern white American culture, occupies the first third of the novel. I found it a relatively slow start, drawing extensively on Lewis’s own rising sense of guilt and paranoia about the elk, and its success largely depended on the reader’s investment in that character. For my part, although Lewis was strongly drawn, I often struggled to understand his decision-making and preoccupations – which may, after all, be the point. He’s receiving a series of visions and portents that tell him he’s being haunted – or hunted – by an Elk Head Woman, an entity connected to the elk he killed ten years ago, and in his rising panic he makes pretty big (and ultimately tragic) leaps of connection, for example thinking his wife Peta is the elk because she’s a vegetarian. However, this became a fertile source of horror once it was clear that Lewis would stop at nothing to remove the perceived threat of the Elk Head Woman – and the ante was neatly upped when Lewis’s fears were shown to be real and justified.

The vengeful supernatural creeps into the novel slowly. We see an ominous herd of elk standing silently to trap Ricky with the truckers at the beginning of the novel – and Gabe says jokingly on the phone to Lewis: “it’s haunted, man, don’t you know?” When Jones introduces the apparition of the Elk Head Woman, she’s sparingly drawn (“a tall top-heavy form”, reminiscent in its lightness of touch of Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, and the “wet round head” of her revenant trapper). Matters escalate, and in a beautiful reverie-like sequence the entity is “birthed” out of Peta’s corpse to become corporeal and return to the reservation for vengeance. She walks – she doesn’t run – and the novel is full of sideways sightings of that entity closing in on the characters, like It Follows, taking us to a horrifically tense sequence in which Gabe and Cass are in the delirious claustrophobic heat of the sweat-lodge, unaware of the entity waiting outside to pick them off one by one.

For me, one of the most successful aspects of the novel was the way horror intrudes unexpectedly – and graphically – onto the page. Jones doesn’t show his hand early on (except in the portrayals of animal death and mutilation – dog lovers beware), leading the reader into a dreamlike world of glimpsed entities and portents, before presenting sudden and unsparing portrayals of physical violence and body horror. Lewis is convinced the Elk Head Woman will reveal herself by her “ivory”, so cracks open the jaws of his victims and prises out their teeth looking for it, turning himself into the monster that (with his heartfelt promises to the dying elk) we know he isn’t. Peta dies an abrupt and horrible death; other women connected to the four protagonists are summarily dispatched – or are they? – by the Elk Head Woman – and in a truly arresting sequence, Cass colludes in his own death-by-beating, “the muscles closest to [his] shin bone… the last to die”. While I found some of the reactions and leaps of logic made by the characters to be occasionally implausible (it seems it only takes a jacket and long dark hair to fool these guys), the cumulative effect is an assault on the senses. Denorah gets her own extended sequence facing down the Elk Head Woman from the basketball court to the snow-covered woods, via the smouldering pit of bodies the sweat-lodge has become, and is a Final Girl (even called “Finals Girl” by her father, presumably in a tongue-in-cheek nod to this trope) to be reckoned with. She survives because – as her coach has often told her on the basketball court – she wants it the most. Unlike the four men at the novel’s core, she doesn’t accept the inevitability of the elk’s vengeance.

The Only Good Indians takes its time in revealing the supernatural at its core, giving the reader a lot to enjoy while that mystery unfolds, particularly the perfectly detailed portraits of its characters, their thoughts and beliefs, and what being a “good Indian” means to them. Once the gun is fired, however, the book goes off – with violence and vengeful entities bursting in from every angle, culminating in a last quarter of peculiarly nightmarish horror. Although Jones sets the story as sparked by the four protagonists’ breach of cultural taboo, readers may be left with a sense they (and those around them) didn’t quite “earn” such gleefully blood-soaked retribution – or was it that their frenzied killing that day recalled some lingering bad psychic energy from “a century ago, when soldiers gathered up in the ridges above Blackfeet encampments to turn the cranks on their big guns, terraform this new land for their occupation. Fertilize it with blood”? The novel builds up to a big, bold ending, and doesn’t attempt to over-explain. Nor, in my view, did it need to.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones is published by Titan Books.


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