‘The Only Good Indians’ by Stephen Graham Jones -Highly recommended

This book is astonishingly good. So astonishing that I struggle a little to explain what makes it good. The story, four Indian men marked for death and pursued, ten years after the act that doomed them, by what initially seems like guilt but becomes a vengeful spirit, isn’t an original concept but the execution is breathtaking.

These are immersive stories. We get a ring-side seat on what’s happening inside each man’s head as his doom approaches.

We start with a man on the run from home who meets his death in a parking lot that is filled with balletic violence. The incident seems almost like not-unexpected bad luck except you know there’s something more, something not quite natural, something linked to this man’s past that has dressed punishment as misfortune.

Then we meet a man who has spent ten years building a life for himself with his white wife. A man who reads. A man who knows that he and his wife are saving each other. A man who is still haunted by guilt for what he did ten years ago. A man who, as strange things begin to happen, reasons carefully but whose reasoning slowly starts to incorporate myths and magical thinking that walks so close to madness that, by the time the destruction of his life comes, he accepts it fatalistically and is thankful for the ten years he had beforehand. Watching this process is painful, partly because it’s so plausible

In the second hall of the book, back on the reservation, things become more complicated. The vengeful spirit becomes visible and sets up and feeds off conflict caused by the distrust and anger and grief of the two doomed men.

In each story we get a version of Indian men struggling to find a place for themselves. Overcoming what feels like a deeply rooted sense of doom. Attaching their hope to luck or to a woman who will rescue them or a daughter who will be better than them. When they lose everything, it feels like an outcome that they had always been waiting for, a second shoe that had to drop, an expiration date that they couldn’t read but knew would come due.

All of the men are flawed, have made bad decisions, but they are all trying, in their different ways, for something different and better either on or off the reservation. The sadness in the book comes from knowing that these are not bad men but also knowing that they are unlikely to survive to live the lives they want to live. Although the story is one of supernatural vengeance for a wrong done, it felt as if this was just one possible version of the doom these men were under and that, spirit or no spirit, they face daily the chance that some act or decision or inaction will take everything away from them.

The ending is wonderful. Original. Full of hope but not fluffy. It’s a hope based on courage but tempered by compassion and powered by the refusal of one young girl to be doomed or to doom anyone else.

This is a stay-up-late-to-finish-it book that is also a don’t-skim-anything-cos-it’s-all-too-good-to-rush book. I’m sure there’s some clever structural stuff in there that’s making this happen but I couldn’t see it on the first read-through because I was being swept along by an immersive storytelling style that felt immediate and urgent while still being almost conversational in tone. As if you were catching up with someone you grew up with but haven’t seen in a while and who has had some strange things happen in between that you need to know all about.

This is a full-length novel that feels like an oral story. Sometimes it’s a story told at a bar to a friend. Sometimes it’s a story you tell yourself in your head to convince yourself it’s all going to work out OK, probably. Sometimes it’s a legend told by an elder to children so that they can know threats when they see them and have the courage not to back away.

I can’t explain why the prose works but I love it and I want more of it.

My advice: read the audiobook version of this book. The narration is perfect. It makes the prose dance. Click on the SoundCloud link below and listen for yourself.

5 thoughts on “‘The Only Good Indians’ by Stephen Graham Jones -Highly recommended

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s