Book Review: The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

This week, I’m once again tackling one of those books that slipped by me back when it was first released in 2020. For a long time, it seemed like I couldn’t go on Twitter without seeing the cover of Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians, which won or was nominated for a slew of awards. And while it isn’t really the season to be spooky, I didn’t want to sit on a review until October, so you’re getting it now. Enjoy!

Lewis, Gabe, Ricky and Cassidy are old friends from back on the Blackfoot reservation. A decade after an ill-advised hunting trip, half of the group have gone their separate ways – Ricky to find work after a family tragedy, Lewis to a life of domestic bliss with wife Peta – while Gabe and Cassidy have remained behind, their ties too strong to break. Now something is coming for them and their loved ones, stalking them implacably across the American midwest.

There is a line in Alan Moore’s revered 1988 Batman one-shot The Killing Joke, which is surely one of the most famous lines in the caped crusader’s history. Attempting to justify – or perhaps merely to explain – his own insanity, the Joker claims that “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” In the case of Lewis, who we spend much of the first half of the novel with, it feels as if it takes about five minutes. The conclusions that he leaps to seem to come almost out of nowhere, his suggestibility off the scale. His actions, too, seem extreme given his total lack of evidence, and he can at times be frustratingly irrational and ready to jump at his own shadow most of the time. Reading into things a little deeper though, it could be argued that his Native American identity means that there are inherent tensions between him and his environment of white suburbia, and that these feed into his paranoia, his wild imaginings themselves fuelled by the escapist fantasy fare he favours himself. In fact, the series of fantasy novels he reads make for some oddly protracted diversions – though they’re nothing compared to the sporting ones.

It’s with Lewis that we first get a glimpse of what a prevalent role basketball is going to play throughout the novel, as everyone seems to play it, talk about it, or both. It can be a bit wearing in all honesty, at times feeling like it does little other than indulge a hobby for Jones and any readers who happen to be particularly into the sport. Thematically, basketball seems to represent the possibility of escape, a common dream (whether active or long given up on) for many of the characters. It’s a nice idea, but the actual execution can drag. With that being said, the final game we see is the best one; even if it’s still packed with play-by-play descriptions and goes on a little longer than feels necessary, it’s a tense and self-contained affair which would work well as a short story with barely a tweak. That’s not to say it doesn’t fit in seamlessly here, just that it’s the most satisfying and fully realised version of what Jones has been doing throughout the rest of the novel. 

The whole second half of the novel, in fact, is an improvement on the first, with the tension building up nicely and the characters behaving with a touch more rationality, which in turn makes them more believable. Jones explores the way ancient Native American traditions, beliefs and practises intersect with the modern world; how some are seemingly incompatible with it, how some have been adapted and how some can still find a foothold. It makes for interesting reading, and seeing certain characters engaging with this part of their heritage roots them firmly in their place and circumstances in a way that’s at once moving and tragic.

In terms of its prose, The Only Good Indians isn’t particularly special, even if it is somewhat unique. There’s a chattiness to much of the writing, at times slipping into an internal monologue as characters try to convince themselves that they can’t have seen what they thought they’d just seen, and so on. Occasionally this chatty tone married with the present tense narration can cause the odd stumble, resulting in slightly awkwardly constructed sentences that need to be read a couple of times to fully grasp, but more often than not it’s used to good effect to draw the reader further into the story before springing some bloody violence on them. Jones favours the sudden moment of splattery carnage over drawn out bloodiness, which mostly works well – sometimes it perhaps comes a little too out of the blue, which slightly cheapens the payoff, but the deaths are frequently visceral and often memorable. 

There’s plenty to enjoy about The Only Good Indians, even if it’s not without its flaws. How much satisfaction there is to be had might vary depending on how much of a chore you find wading through the basketball scenes to be, but there’s enough going on between these scenes that you’ll want to press on. Its perspective on Native American culture in modern America makes it stand out, and the clever blending of this with traditional horror tropes ensures it lingers longer than you might expect.

The Only Good Indians is published by Titan Books.

Currently reading: Notes From an Apocalypse, Mark O’Connell
Currently listening: Pilgrim, Thron

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