Stephen Graham Jones pulls off an interesting feat in his new novel, The Only Good Indians. He makes you question whether you should root for the four Native American friends who shot and killed a family of elk on a hunting trip or for the spirit of the elk as it seeks revenge against them.
Ten years ago, while hunting on land designated for use by their tribal elders, Ricky, Lewis, Gabe and Cass opened fire on a small elk herd with reckless abandon, killing far more than they should have, including one that was pregnant. The now 30-something men have moved off of the Blackfeet reservation, but the incident still haunts Lewis, who has always felt guilty about the deed as well as about having turned his back on his culture.
When Lewis sees a vision of the elk’s calf in his living room, his guilt begins to consume him. He suspects the elk’s spirit has taken the form of a friend, Shaney, and he sets a grisly trap for her. But Lewis’ irrational fears continue, and before long, he suspects the entity has switched forms again, this time taking on that of his wife, Peta. Confused by Lewis’ actions at first, Gabe and Cass soon begin to experience the wrath of the elk’s spirit as well, leading up to a frantic finale.
Borrowing a bit from his previous novel, Mongrels, which explored the mindset of a family of werewolves, Jones’ latest novel dips into the elk’s perspective in several chapters. As a result, the reader is torn as to which faction—men or beast—is more deserving of empathy. The Only Good Indians unfolds at a slow and steady pace that offers ample opportunities for sharp commentary on history, past choices and the identity crises of a group of Native American men. It toys with impending doom, then slaps you in the face with violence.