Ever since reading There, There by Tommy Orange a few years ago, I’ve been eager to buy more books about the American Aboriginal experience. These books are hard to find (at least as a Canadian, they seem be hard to find), and other than Louise Erdrich, I’m having trouble thinking of other Native American writers (please recommend some in the comments!) It was this curiosity that led me to pick up The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, a horror book that’s landed on all the ‘must read of summer 2020’ lists. And honestly, if I can’t enjoy a little horror in the summer of a pandemic, when can I?
Four friends live on a reserve and go hunting in a zone forbidden to them as it is set aside for elders only. They ignore the warning and find a huge herd of elk, shooting a few to bring home for meat. One of the men, Lewis, shoots an elk who happens to be pregnant, which is rare for that time of year. He feels so guilty about this he persuades his friends to help him carry as much of her back to the truck as a way of honouring her death, then he buries her fetus. Around the ten year anniversary of this ill-fated hunting trip, the four friends begin to experience bizarre, haunting visions of this same elk, while the first of their group, “Richard Boss Ribs” dies a strange death in a bar parking lot. The death and gore continues throughout the story, enough to satisfy any horror-lover looking for a good scare.
This book is a satisfying read for both horror and literary fiction lovers. I was really impressed with the character development, each person standing out on their own, even when we engage with them for only a few pages before they are killed off. The majority of the characters are Indian, so many are fighting against an ongoing tension between expressing their heritage and the modern day realities of living in a country that is outwardly racist towards them. This challenge manifests itself differently for each character, but is also constant, quietly working in the background. Most make jokes about it, wondering out loud what makes them a good Indian, while others, a young woman in particular muses on the hurtful saying “…the only good Indian is a dead one…” (p. 161 ARC). Although I haven’t read much American Aboriginal literature, this is a common theme in Canadian Indigneous writing: the push and pull of honouring one’s ancestors while trying to make a new life for yourself, one that fits into the unfair expectations of a white society.
Aside from strong characters, the writing is a welcome mix of dark humour and memorable lines, one of the (grossest?) being this description of drinking a V8 juice: “He doesn’t like the way it coats his mouth like cold spaghetti sauce or the way it clumps down his throat like throw-up he’s having to swallow…”(p. 134 of ARC). This seems like a random quote to choose, but it demonstrates how visceral the writing is, a tactic horror writers use to simultaneously prepare and disturb their readers for what’s to come.
The plot chugs along in a somewhat uneven manner, which is my only complaint about the book. After a quick death only a few pages in, character development dominates the first half of the book, setting up the cursed hunting trip and exploring Lewis’s life in detail. Once we move on to the other characters in the second half of the book, the action picks up speed, more reminiscent of your typical horror novel. Strangely, the climax is strung out over 50-ish pages, which seemed much too long. It lost some of its ‘terror’ factor by spreading itself thin, giving the reader too much time to really analyze what was going on. Horror needs to move at a certain pace to keep the tension going, and unfortunately it just petered out by the end for me. Still, this book succeeds as a work of literary fiction with supernatural elements woven throughout, and even though I wasn’t on the edge of my seat the entire time, I enjoyed the experience nonetheless.
One of my favorite things about being part of the small-press crowd in the U.S. is I typically read and/or meet authors before everyone knows who they are. I met SGJ back in 2009 at a Fiction Collective 2 (the name of a publisher) reading. I had him sign my book, and he seemed so surprised that I’d asked. Now, look at him! Everyone knows his name. One issue I have with SGJ’s writing is there are times when I just DON’T. KNOW. WHAT. IS GOING. ON. I feel like an more involved editor could possibly smooth that out. I’ll take it in his short stories (such as the collection entitled When The People Lights Go Out), but in his novels, I just feel like I’m drowning without context. Am I drowning in my bathtub? An ocean? A swimming pool? I don’t know, I’m so lost, but I’m drowning.
hahaha I didn’t really notice that in this book, but that kind of stuff does really bug me generally too!
I’M SO GLAD! Like I said, I love his ideas but the writing can be trouble. I may have to check this book out.
I’m intrigued by this book despite being a big chicken when it comes to horror!
Have you read a memoir called Crazy Brave? It’s by Joy Harjo and it’s a quick read and very good, she’s Native American and also Poet Laureate of the US.
OOHHH nice recommendation Laila! Haven’t heard of it no
Ha! There was a hashtag trending on Twitter the other day #TheOnlyGoodIndians and I assumed it was because of some awful racist incident – quite a relief to discover it’s the name of a book! I do agree that horror really needs to be kept tight and preferably short for maximum impact, but it does sound intriguing anyway – although that quote is gross!
Isn’t that quote disgusting! LOL I gagged when I read it. That’s quite funny about the hashtag!
Sherman Alexis comes to mind but otherwise I’m drawing a blank. Which seems strange because I could list a lot of First Nations Canadian writers.
This book sounds fascinating!
Ah yes, how could I forget!
This is on my TBR too, but in a someday way, not an immediate way. For adding to your TBR, I recommend Daniel Heath Justice’s book on indigenous literatures (he’s north of the border but has soooo many amazing recommendations that I would recommend buying the book just for the very lengthy and detailed appendix alone, although you might find that his narrative is a titch too academic to make it fun. I also recommend a slim book by David Truer about indigenous writers and writing, from Graywolf Press in the US (he has a more recent work of NF that is more overtly political but might have a bookish side too). And, because I can’r resist, I’ll share just one she-should-be-better-known favourite, Linda Hogan, a Chickasaw writer, whose coming-of-age novel, Power, is lyrical and beautiful and character-driven and I really hope to reread it this year. Her website.
OHHHH thank you! These are great suggestions
It actually isn’t a spoiler, because it’s a work of horror and many people die – I didn’t specify who!