The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (Saga Press, 2020, $26.99) wastes no getting down to business. Its first chapter is an eleven-page adrenaline rush focused on the character Ricky Boss Ribs. After those eleven pages the reader knows three things: (1) a vengeful spirit is out for retribution; (2) there’s going to be violence; (3) buckle up.
There is a raison d’être for this vengeful spirit, it turns out. Ten years ago, four Blackfeet Indians (Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe) hunted on a ground reserved for elders and committed acts they shouldn’t have. This information emerges when the narrative moves to Lewis, the most guilt-wracked of the four over what they did nearly ten years ago. A series of strange events happen to Lewis that cause him to question the true nature of his new co-worker Shaney but also his wife Peta.
The highlight of this segment is a decapitation I knew about yet didn’t see coming, but for me, that’s outshined by Lewis’ manic interiority as he reckons with his past, piecing clues together on why him, why here, why now, and what the spirit wants. Lewis walks a fine line between logical and unhinged; it’s at once insightful and legitimately insane. The more we know, the more his internal tug-of-war makes sense.
Author Stephen Graham Jones
Jones is an experienced novel writer – his Wikipedia page shows 18 published books – and the decades spent honing his craft are on display here. The adage ‘plot is character’ holds true for a reason, and it’s in Jones’ characters where the true strength of the book lies. Lewis’s love of cheesy fantasy novels, Peta’s athleticism, and Denorah’s expert-level knowledge of basketball are vivid and either well-researched or well-lived. Characters aren’t just attributes though. It’s how these attributes inform their thoughts and emotions that make everyone jump off the page. Denorah’s basketball game is one of the best depictions of the sport I’ve ever read.
Additionally, there are strong craft elements on display. Multiple points of view mix together without seams and Jones uses long, twisting sentences that harness tension of the moment. It’s a wonderful device that keeps the heart rate high in moments of frenzy, especially during the seat-clutching finale.
While my personal high point of the novel is the tense, confusing puzzle-solving found in the books’ first half, the graphic violence deserves mention. This is visceral action draped in gore (though it doesn’t feel thrown in or gratuitous) and is sure to elicit a response in readers.
The Only Good Indians is an artful, fast thrill ride – a book that holds up (if not strengthens) with subsequent reads.
Also, take a look at our article on ‘Ghost Stories’ and Indian Anthonly