The Only Hope is through Horror: The Only Good Indians and the Cycles We Long to Escape

The Only Way to Genuine Hope is through Horror

Ian Olson / 11.25.20

Stephen Graham Jones’ latest novel The Only Good Indians is a story of memory, guilt, and vengeance, and it is triggering in the most spiritually illuminating way. I come to it as a Native American and read in it of paranormal horror which arises out of and highlights the mundane horror which permeates contemporary native existence. Jones brings us within the experience of characters who want to escape life on the reservation and in various ways attempt to escape or fail to. In so doing, they fall within the cyclical patterns which they were so eager to elude in the first place. 

This novel builds a world so eerily like our own. A good author can put the reader behind the eyes of another character, but Jones casts an enchantment whereby I indwell the stories I’ve heard from aunts and uncles and cousins back home on the reservation. The four main characters in The Only Good Indians, Lewis, Ricky, Cassidy, and Gabe, embody that overconfidence of youth that is so assured that they will escape, that whatever happens they will figure out a way to repeal the consequences of centuries of history bearing down upon them.

For most people, life feels the same way. But Jones isn’t addressing a generic “we” — however much this is true of contemporary human existence, Jones does not let us forget for a moment that this is true in uniquely painful ways for Indians like myself, disgusted with how we fail our ambitions as members of our people as well as our need to escape the patterns of passivity and addiction and ruin that typify the generation preceding us. Yet we continually tumble into camouflaged versions of the same traps which captured them. We see ourselves as not very good Indians, much less sons and daughters, spouses, or parents. The gravity well of our collective defeat is too strong. 

So it goes with the novel’s protagonists. For even the ones who escape the confines of the Rez’ don’t escape the consequences of a bad decision they all made on their last hunting trip together. A revenant of retribution is birthed that day, one which comes home to roost years afterward. This is one of the quiet strengths of Jones’s novel (of which there are many, particularly in the ways he refuses to call attention to the repetition of patterns): the portrayal of vengeance as an entity with agency, which (or should I say who?) does not operate mechanistically, correcting moral imbalance and then dissipating to the winds. It is a ravenous force that cannot be satisfied on its own terms. 

The system of actions and consequences — call it Law if you must — however useful and even necessary it may be in the webbed relationality of creatures, is always double-edged in the present age. Its repercussions exceed proportionality and often are unconcerned with whether or not we have never repeated the sins which demanded redress. Death is always the result, but the spirit of vengeance isn’t sheathed once exaction is made: it continues, inebriated with its own lust for retribution, imbalanced and out of control. Once it emerges from the nexus of cause and effect it does not rest: it persists, insatiable, eager to take and to destroy above and beyond the limits of the original wrong.

The Only Good Indians feels relatively hopeless for the majority of its pages. Its protagonists’ attempts to course-correct and leave behind their wrongdoing from that illicit hunt sometimes seem as though they may succeed, but doom eventually finds them. 

But hope does arise in the novel’s conclusion. A split perspective is introduced which renders the novel as a story being told by a tribal elder to a group of children. The material of the story turns and faces itself in this layered narrative device: every switchback and dead end of their individual stories finds its place in a narrative that incorporates the tragedy of their lives into the story of the tribe.

The stories of these characters, only half-understood by each of them, find their culmination and their vindication in this end none of them could possibly have envisioned. All of them periodically wonder throughout the novel if this is how their ancestors did things, if their lives measure up in any way to the tradition to which they ostensibly belong. In their failures to be “good Indians” we recognize the heavy hand of fallen history, recognize how they wound themselves in their decisions, but nevertheless clamor for their stories to amount to something more than examples of what not to do.

In the novel’s final, breathless, fifty-page run, Gabe’s daughter Denorah takes the stage and becomes more than an allusion made in his story. We’ve learned of her passion for basketball, the storied skill she brings to her game, and her hopes of securing a scholarship out of the Rez’ on her strengths as a player. But by inadvertently becoming a protagonist in this story she risks the death of that possibility. If her high school career as basketball phenom should come to an end, can she find a way to live from that point on as something other than The Girl Who Failed Her Promise?

We can be so preoccupied with escaping where we were raised or reared that what seems like a ticket out becomes to us something that simply must succeed. The desperation is so real that we freight that opportunity with the weight of a lifetime’s ambitions and fears such that it becomes impossible to maneuver. It’s easy to lose ourselves in the process, even if it isn’t ultimately successful. For that is how long, embittered lives begin: this is the substance of their emptiness. We see it in many of the generation preceding us and we fear it for ourselves.

But this elder tells Denorah’s story to exemplify the sacrifice which annuls the spirit of vengeance. The grace which becomes event through the appeal to mercy, by grabbing hold of that cycle of sin and retribution and halting its turn with the refusal to take vengeance. She makes a split-second decision — just as her father and his friends did years before — and in her risk she reconnects with the tradition which they had broken, reversing their sin and in so doing bringing to completion their attempts at being “good Indians.”

Is there anything harder for a trampled, identity-stripped, nearly eradicated people to do? How can we possibly forego the urge to avenge ourselves while being true to ourselves as Indians? We are a people whose stories of ourselves were violently disrupted by the coming of European settlers, forcefully relocated into an alien narrative of dominance and competition. We live on the other side of a supposedly more progressive historical boundary which allows people to pretend the wrongs have been righted, but many of us still inhabit that wasteland the culturally enlightened call “progress,” unsure of how far short we fall of our forebears, unsure of how to be “good Indians.” Jones tells us the truth about ourselves and gathers the wreckage of our virtues and our failures alike so as to narrate a future we can imagine ourselves within, a future one good Indian can open for us.

The only way to genuine hope is through horror. And that horror must be confronted head-on here, in the midst of history, to break through to that new narration of hope. Anything less will keep us locked in the same cycle of ruin and misery we’ve known for so long, that none of us can bear to go on repeating. Stephen Graham Jones narrates just such a story for us, both Indian and non-Indian, who must reckon with the payment the past demands of us.