Sunday, August 23, 2020

Retreating from everyday horror into fictional horror


 Hoo, boy, it's been a long time since I wrote, huh? Back in late January, when I restarted this blog after five years away, I said my hope was to write at least every couple of weeks. And I did it. Until the pandemic. And then . . . not much. The days keep sliding by--"August sipped away like a bottle of wine," as Taylor Swift puts it on her new record.

I've got the time. It's not that keeping me from writing. It's that everything we can say about pandemic life is already starting to harden into cliche. Yet at the same time simply writing, "Here's what I've been reading" also seems false, like a denial of the conditions of strange dread under which that reading occurred. 

That dread, though--it's brought me back here because yesterday I read a novel that took me wholly out of it for a while, substituting its own horrors for the ones around us. Stephen Graham Jones's The Only Good Indians is a horror novel that shocked and surprised and even all but scared me at a couple of points. I started it in the morning and simply tore through it.

The novel tells the story of four male friends, all American Indians from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, and the unexpected supernatural--or is it hyper-natural?--consequences of an incident ten years ago when they slaughtered some elk. To a genre that has long relied lazily on cursed Indian burial grounds and such, Jones brings the perspective of contemporary Native people, living in the twenty-first-century world while also engaging in different, often self-contradictory ways, with tradition.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the novel is the way Jones simply puts us into these people's lives. He doesn't over-explain or act as our guide--he simply shows what life is like for Indians living in or around a reservation today. That life is a lot like the lives of any Americans who are surrounded by poverty, deprivation, and disinvestment overlaid with racism. We're in a world of junk cars and hard-labor jobs and limited opportunity. But it's also a world, within the reservation at least, of long memory and familiar community. The young men mock the tribal stories they were told as children even as they tell and retell contemporary versions from their own lives. Jones takes that vexed relationship with tradition and makes of it something dramatic and compelling, unafraid to mix the quotidian contemporary and the elements of myth. There's a basketball game in this book played for life-and-death stakes against a not-wholly-human creature, for god's sake, and it works, both as Walter Tevis–style sporting event where we care about the moment-to-moment plays and as a full-on fight with death.

At this point, I should apologize: I didn't think I'd be writing about this book, because I haven't been writing, so I don't have the usual batch of passages to share. But this one, selected almost at random, will give you an idea of Jones's voice and of his easy way with the milieu:

Off-rez, people always used to default-think that Lewis and Gabe were brothers. Gabe, at six-two, had always been a touch taller, but otherwise, yeah, sure. In John Wayne's day Lewis and Gabe would have been scooped up to die in a hail of gunfire, would have been Indians "16" and "17," of fort. Cass, though? Cass would have been more the sitting-in-front-of-the-lodge type, the made-for-the-twentieth-century type, maybe even already wearing some early version of John Lennon shades. Ricky, he'd be Bluto from Popeye, just, darker; put him in front of a camera, and all he could hope to play would be the Indian thug off to the side, that nobody trusts to remember even half a line. Of Lewis and Gabe and Cass, though, he was the only one who could struggle out a sort-of beard, if he made it through the itchy part, and didn't have a girlfriend at the. "Custer in the woodpile" was the excuse he would always give, smoothing his rangy fourteen hairs down along his cheeks like Grizzly Adams.

At risk of sounding like the crime fiction reviewer who's only read Chandler and Hammett and thus compares everyone to them, there are definitely aspects of this book that called to mind Stephen King. The comfort with slang and multiple registers seen in the passage above, for example. Jones also shares with King the desire to have us to know almost every character who appears in the book; we're in and out of the heads of most of them at some point in an effectively kaleidoscopic way, and even those for which we're not granted that access are deftly, compactly sketched. What calls to mind King even more, though, is how well Jones depicts physical pain and endurance, and the strange alchemy of will and the body that enables people to keep going long after they should have given up. 

 That's where horror is at its best for me, when it reminds us that the one thing we have that the unfeeling world can't take away from us is our refusal to let it have its way. That is in a way a sentimental vision--eventually we all lose that contest, after all--but it's at the heart of what makes stories like these resonate and feel valuable, especially at a moment like now when our ability to exert our will on the world seems so limited.

If you're looking for a book to take you out of that world for a while even as it mixes its myths with truths about it, The Only Good Indians is waiting for you.