Book name: The Only Good Indians
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Publisher: Titan Books
Format: Print, ebook, audiobook
Publication Date: 2020
Star Rating: 4/5
Some novels are hard to categorise by genre, perhaps because they cover multiple areas or themes.
The Only Good Indians could be thought of as a horror story. There is certainly plenty that is frightening in this tale.
But it is also a thoughtful consideration of our relationship with the natural world and of how we can become comfortable with our own identities.
Ten years ago, four young members of a Native American Indian tribe, on the verge of adulthood, shot some elk.
This is natural and an integral part of the lives of Native American Indians living off their land.
They trespassed onto an area of the reservation reserved for elders in their tribe, but they ended up harvesting so much meat from the carcasses that the meat was shared with the elders.
Since then, Ricky, Gabe, Lewis and Cassidy have gone their own ways. One after another, they are themselves hunted down.
The Only Good Indians opens with Ricky’s death. He is working with a drilling crew in North Dakota. He left the reservation after his brother committed suicide.
One night after work he goes to a bar and gets drunk. When he leaves, he believes that an elk is stalking him.
He destroys multiple vehicles in the parking lot and is then chased by their owners.
Running out into the grassland, Ricky comes up against a herd of elk. At least, he’s sure they are real.
His last thought is that the local newspaper will report this as ‘Indian man killed in dispute outside bar’.
Years later, Lewis is able to point to his own life as a success. He feels that he has bucked the odds. He works for USPS and is married to Peta who works in aviation. They rent a comfortable home.
But not everything is rosy. He is also apparently conducting an affair with his co-worker, Shaney.
His dog, Harley, continually attempts to jump over the fence onto the rail tracks behind their home and almost dies doing so.
Most of all, Lewis suffers from a lingering sense that his identity as an Indian means that others see him differently. Like Ricky, he muses about the headlines that will be written in local papers about his life at different points. He feels defined by others, by white people, and is unhappy.
Lewis becomes tormented by visions of the elk he killed during the shoot a decade earlier. This spirals to the point where he murders his wife and unborn child and also his lover. He is then shot by four hunters, in an eerie parallel with the hunting trip Lewis took with his friends years ago.
A similar fate awaits Cassidy and Gabe.
The Only Good Indians contains a horror narrative, to be sure. The hallucinations that lead to violent killings ensure plenty of fear and bloodshed. The stories are told sequentially, establishing that gruesome endings lie ahead for the group right from the beginning.
However, The Only Good Indians invites us to reflect upon our relationship with the natural world and with ourselves. The book suggests that good mental health comes from accepting our place in the natural world and living in harmony with it and with having a healthy sense of our own identity. This in part involves reflecting on how others see us, but also partly from being sure of our own sense of who we are.
I liked The Only Good Indians and would definitely recommend it if you are in the mood for a horror narrative with plenty of tension and gore coupled with a more reflective side.
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