by Mike Ramberg
The setup for The Only Good Indians, the latest novel from prolific American novelist Stephen Graham Jones, couldn’t be better. Ten years after four friends commit an illegal elk hunt – slaughtering a dozen or so elk on a snowy night five days before Thanksgiving – someone or something comes back to take revenge.
The four friends – Lewis, Gabe, Cass, and Ricky, have long since gone their separate ways, but the events of that night continue to bind them in ways beyond that of their shared heritage. Raised on a Blackfeet reservation, the four are pureblood Native Americans or, as they prefer, Indians. ‘One little two little, three little natives’ doesn’t have the same sound to it, as one of them observes.
Ricky is the first to go. In a tight prologue, Ricky is on his way to a job in Minneapolis when he gets drunk in a truck stop and sees a massive elk destroying trucks in the parking lot. Grabbing a wrench to save the day, he is surprised when the elk disappears, leaving the stunned truckers to find a drunk Indian with a wrench amidst the wreckage of their gear. They murder Ricky themselves.
The avenging spirit, an elk from the hunt, then moves on to Lewis. The novel’s best parts are watching Lewis and the three remaining leads drive themselves into a state of paranoia. The elk-spirit, seeking revenge, is canny and remorseless, setting up circumstances for the characters to drive themselves, and their loved ones, to murder or worse. It’s a great play on the idea of self-sabotage, and how close we all are to losing our minds on any given day, and as it plays out there are more than a few great shocks and bile-swallowing descriptions.
As stated earlier, one of the engines driving the motivation is the characters’ sense of themselves as Indians. They are always obsessively going through old stories and the intricacies of bygone traditions and wondering if that was how the Indians of old did it. Even as Gabe’s daughter Denorah aspires to get out of the reservation with a basketball scholarship, she still holds herself up against the model of the elders.
But despite their self-destructive tendencies, the Indians all see themselves as part of a community, and while some of them might not know what exactly they are fighting, they know they are guilty – of crimes specifically, but in general of not being good enough as Indians, or as human beings, to feel as noble as the generations before them. It is this knowledge that their greatest pride – being an Indian – is what excluded them from the superstructural society that made them who they are and drives them to act as trigger-happy Elk hunters, then later as impoverished reservation screw-ups. But this is also the struggle that makes them sympathetic as characters to the reader, and breaks our hearts when they meet their ends.
As suspenseful as the narrative goes, chugging from one setpiece to another, from improvised sweat lodges to makeshift basketball courts, The Only Good Indians can’t help stumbling over tropes. The killer ultimately turns into a silent stalker, remorseless but slow and dumb in the final scenes, as the final survivor seeks a safe place to hide. As in any slasher, the last survivor stumbles on a stash of bodies, and there’s more than one back-from-the-dead surprise savior.
And while there is a lot to play with thematically, it doesn’t feel as though everything got wrung out of here from the source material. Ideas of toxic masculinity yielding to feminine forms of revenge and survival, of generations yielding to another, of wanting to be Indian in a structure that does not reward it, and of forgiveness working as a greater good than violent revenge are all teased but not amplified. And the vengeful spirit here seems a bit skimpy, just one ghostly bogey-Elk seeking just one revenge, absent from any greater spiritworld or system of hauntings. And I know, it’s a horror story, and at that it’s just great pulpy fun, and I may be asking for too much from a good summer read.
As it is, The Only Good Indians gives you a great read at a great pace. And for these days, that’s pretty good.