The Only Good Indians
Stephen Graham Jones
**** Spoilers Ahead ****
It’s terrifying to watch the things you have worked for being torn apart, to see your life and the lives of those you love being demolished by forces you cannot control. The horror of your impotence is further amplified if you realize, at the same time, that you helped set those destructive forces in motion.
That’s the situation Lewis faces in Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. One day he is living a seemingly normal, unremarkable life—happy enough, it seems, with a wife and a motorcycle and a job at the post office. Then his past metastasizes, grows claws and teeth—or at least a set of sturdy hooves to kick the shit out of him. For Lewis, it starts as a momentary glimpse into another reality from the top of a step ladder, a bewildering glimpse of a past he thought he left behind when he left the reservation. It quickly turns into an unnerving descent into fear, uncertainty—who are the agents of the past, how will the growing danger he senses manifest itself?—and violence. What Jones unveils is the dreadful power of the past, how horror can grow out of a single moment and come shrieking at you across the years to devour, without winnowing, everything in its path.
The terror of this is magnified by the fact that it is not simply Lewis who is destroyed. Rage and blood lust yield plenty of collateral damage. And after Lewis dies midway through the book, the carnage only intensifies. This is not, of course, wholly unexpected: Jones has already cast the book as the story of four friends and has shared Ricky’s bloody end before turning his attention to Lewis. But, read from a particular perspective, Lewis’s demise seems premature. In the European tradition, the novel’s roots are associated with the rise of individualism: the long-fiction form evolved as the examination of the life and adventures of a single figure (think Don Quixote and Gulliver) and the intricacies of the individual consciousness (think Tristam Shandy and, ultimately, Leopold Bloom). Here, as the latter part of the book unfolds, Jones forces us to see that the stories of Cass and Gabe are not secondary to Lewis's. While Lewis fired the specific bullet that set the wheels of vengeance in motion, all four of them fired that fateful day. Wrongdoing, guilt, and retribution are all shared.
This idea is not entirely unprecedented in horror fiction, of course. The idea that collective sin earns collective wages is not new. Still, Jones’s strong foregrounding of Lewis in the earlier sections of the book had the effect, for me, of emphasizing how his story differs from the traditional notion of the novel as one man’s story. It shifted my focus as a reader onto the ways that events are greater than one person and how our actions can have brutal, terrifying long-term consequences beyond our individual lives.
This isn’t to say that Jones presents a world of unmitigated doom. In the end, he graces us with Denorah, whose persistence and courage yield insight and, finally, mercy. Her No! is born despite fear and blood, in the face of danger and vengeance, and it opens the door to new possibilities. In the end, Jones’s narration pulls back to give us a wide-angle shot that casts this final scene against the backdrop of the universe itself and ties past, present, and future into a single knot of hope. It’s an upbeat, unexpected end to a dark, disturbing book—but one that is convincing and well-executed.