This morning, fat bands of mist layer the fields on Puget Island. It’s late July, summer has turned toward fall and the beginning of school. This year, the Wahkiakum County Fair re-invented itself as a virtual forum. Bald Eagle Days was canceled. The population’s entrenched opinions on politics, public health policy and policing exacerbate feelings of unease. But good things are happening. More and more books by Native authors are being published, doing the work that literature does.
The Only Good Indians, a newly released horror novel by the prolific author Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet), is a story with such an engaging style and voice, that I found myself enjoying a genre I don’t read.
Jones is an English professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and a mentor at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where I had an alumni seminar with him.
When readers examined his first books, including Growing up Dead in Texas, with an anthropological lens, Jones switched to writing about werewolves. Part of the joy he brings is his pronunciation, the slight nasal tang from his West Texas upbringing, which puts me where I grew up, my brothers in the garage remaking my father’s Chevy with glass packs and the best carburetor.
The title The Only Good Indians leaves the reader to supply the last words of the familiar quote. It signals Jones’ willingness to engage with Native tropes and his love of horror. Characters you’ve come to care about die in this novel. Four young Blackfeet friends participate in a Thanksgiving weekend elk hunt that goes wrong and changes their lives. Ten years later, Lewis is a mail-carrier married to a white woman, who has a habit of writing headlines describing himself: FORMER BASKETBALL STAR CAN’T EVEN HANG GRADUATION BLANKET IN OWN HOME. He’s also a man who eats over the sink, so he doesn’t leave crumbs around. The male-female relationships between the characters are positive, refreshing and realistic, even as each of them suffers disastrous ends.
Jones upends the expectations that Natives are walking cultural encyclopedias. He writes Middle America and Indian Country with trucks, motorcycles and basketball. It’s the setting and solid characterization that allow all of this to flow seamlessly, a subterranean river carrying us along. A 14-year-old teenager who has lost a friend to suicide corrects the Blackfeet men offering a sweat by saying, “Nobody says ‘Indian’ anymore,” both sarcastically and wistfully. Gabe and Cass give it right back, “One little, two little, three little Natives just doesn’t sound right, does it?”
The text layers these threads as one after another of the protagonists is killed, destroyed in self-inflicted ways by an Elk Woman. “That’s not even a Blackfeet thing, is it?” one of them observes.
A prolific writer, Jones’ website says he’s written “23 or 25 books, 300+ stories and some comic books.” He’s an NEA fellow with multiple awards across genres recognized for his excellence. His relative lack of fame has more to do with the deficits of the publishing world and the hierarchy of genres and strictures of literary preference than Jones’ work and ability, but that’s changing now.
The cover, a beautiful black and white photograph of a ghostly elk with the hand-printed words “a novel,” pulls you into a singular read. Jones shines in author photos too, from the days when he posed with an axe over his shoulder, long hair messy to his current set with dramatic lighting, a western suit jacket and sleeked back hair.
See The Only Good Indians by Simon & Shuster’s Saga Press, 320 pages, $27. An audiobook version narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett (Blackfeet), who also narrated Tommy Orange’s There There, is exceptional.
We can look forward to more from Stephen Graham Jones, while we wait for more of our talented Osage authors’ work to make its way into our hands.