Ever since someone convinced me to read The Exorcist when I was a freshman in college, with the result that I didn’t sleep in my bed for a month, I have avoided horror movies and books. I read The Green Mile by Stephen King, but avoided all his other works. On the other hand, I have a deep and abiding love of American Indian literature and have a huge library that ranges from a Smithsonian interview of a survivor and observer of The Battle of the Little Big Horn, to a collection of Lucy Tapahonso poetry. So, when I was offered the book The Only Good Indians at a deeply discounted price, I snapped it up without knowing anything about the author except that he was from the Blackfeet Nation.
Eschewing reading the blurbs, or any of the other notes, I plunged into a story that had some very familiar elements, shape shifting entities, animals with intelligence as high has humans, and cultural loss and confusion. Only the first violent scene turned my attention to the frontispiece and notes, and I realized that the book is considered a horror book.
Stephen Graham Jones is a gifted writer, and by the time I realized I was violating my own taboo, I was hooked on the story and the characters. When Ricky Boss Ribs is set up to take the fall for a bunch of wrecked trucks. . . by a bull elk . . .I was back in the familiar territory of the old stories where animals and man were still equals, cooperating and fighting in turn. Little did I know that the story was much different than that.
Mr. Jones keeps the initiating incident a mystery until well into the book, so I don’t want to give it away (you can read any review online and find out) because the suspense and mystery of why the character Lewis, with his long, girly eyelashes, seems to be losing his friggin’ mind would be lost. I loved the long unfolding of the story, although the violence that it begets was a bit mind boggling, and would definitely earn this book a PG-13 or R rating for extreme violence (since it doesn’t involve guns) if it was a movie.
In contrast to the intense violence is an underlying humor. Lewis lends a series of books to a friend, and the description of the content mocks every Harry Potter copycat there is. The characters themselves often see their lives as stereotypical headlines, “Indian man killed in dispute outside bar”, Ricky Boos Ribs thinks, before he realizes that it’s the elk that wants him dead, at which point he adds, “That’s one way to say it.”
My long dive into American Indian history and literature let me appreciate some of the subtler aspects of the book. The history of the Crow and Blackfeet nations, traditional enemies, makes it ironic that two of the main Blackfeet characters have Crow girlfriends. The intense basketball rivalry between the two tribes today, (as intense as any Army/Navy football game) amplifies the basketball theme running through the book.
It is always hard, as a white reviewer, to review an American Indian author, and after the first draft of this column I read some really cringe worthy reviews by white authors. I want to avoid that here, if possible, but there are some realities about this book that endear it even more to me. Mr. Jones does not dance around the issues on the reservations: alcoholism, deadbeat dads, lack of opportunity and extreme poverty. He lets us see the characters struggle with their 8000-year history while trying to make their way in today’s world. His hand is light and the book never becomes polemic. His exposition of interracial relationships, and the natural kinship one feels toward someone with shared experience, is delicate and illuminating. When it’s all transferred to an inter-tribal relationship you find yourself thinking, “huh”.
This book is a page turner. I found myself rooting for the villain, as should happen in all good horror stories, but a little overwhelmed by the blood and guts and violence. One scene drags on so long that it edges right up to farce then backs down. There are some devices that are common to all horror books; the obligatory pursuit by an implacable killer, the unexpected deliverance by a minor character, and the shocking reveal regarding someone thought to be benign. The elk-headed woman, too, feels familiar to old American Indian lore, where animals were often not what they seemed, and motivated by knowledge just beyond our grasp.
I highly recommend this book. Just read it before you let your children read it, as the gore and guts get to be a bit much. I had to walk away for a bit. These characters will stay with you, and I find myself thinking about them at odd times. I sort of miss them, and wish the book had been longer.
Later: I found myself wondering if this book was an allegory. The characters are part of the ‘lost generation’ swallowed up by alcohol and drugs on the reservations. They struggle with what their authenticity means, using watered down versions of old rituals, while simultaneously mocking their elders. The next generation, the young, troubled folks, save the day, without regard for old forms and traditions. But then, I did some research and found out the author’s personal website is demontheory.net and thought . . . “nah!”
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, SAGA press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster 2020