The Faster Redder Road: The Best UnAmerican Stories of Stephen Graham Jones edited by Theodore C. Van Alst Jr., University of New Mexico Press, 371 pages
Writing at the intersection of crime noir, genre horror, and sci-fi, Stephen Graham Jones has created an absurd parallel universe to limn the lives of American Indians and others who live in the small towns of Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, and the Florida Panhandle. Perhaps his best-known novel, 2000’s The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong, follows Pidgin, a mixed-race American Indian, as he evades cops, aliens, giant coyotes, and political radicals while searching for his father’s body, which was heisted at his funeral. More recently, Jones published It Came From Del Rio (Part 1 of the Bunnyhead Chronicles), a cross-genre romp that tracks a fugitive father, his Border Patrol agent daughter, and their intersecting lives as they contend with an increasingly bloodthirsty pack of chupacabras in south Texas who have found a new master, a rabbit-headed zombie.
Despite his fiction’s fantastical plots, Jones rarely descends into camp or kitsch. His prose is sleek and image driven; his ludicrous situations are an entry point to social realism, exploring the very real lives of men and women on the margins of society. Most of his characters struggle to locate family and find love while facing violence and confronting personal demons of addiction and anger.
Consider these sentences from “Carbon,” a tale of teenage love set amid drug use, family dysfunction, and terminal illness from the new anthology of Jones’ work released by the University of New Mexico Press: “We were awake for four days straight and our hands shook around our cigarettes and the sun came up and made a day for us, for the two of us. Sometimes she’d look at me and my teeth would be chattering around my sawed-off filter and she’d tilt her head back and laugh a little, breathing out her nose, and I’d know there was nothing else in the world except for her and me.”
The University of Colorado professor and Blackfeet tribal member has built a cult reputation through an unlikely mix of work published in underground horror magazines, academic literary journals, and Native American fiction outlets. Born and raised in Texas, he is a recipient of the Texas Institute of Letters award for fiction. By his own admission, Jones can write quickly, and he’s capable of banging out novellas like the semiautobiographical The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti over a three-day weekend. According to a 2014 Los Angeles Times story, the 43-year-old writer has published more than 200 novels, stories, anthology inclusions, and e-releases.
While attempting to introduce him to a wider audience, this anthology provides plenty of goodies for his longtime fans. In the manner of a DVD commentary track, Jones provides off-the-cuff remarks on each of the 35 stories and novel excerpts included in the book, recounting the life events and personal moods that led him to craft each tale. With his penchant for writing absurd horror and crime potboilers that swirl with surreal humor and sociopolitical and racial tensions, comparisons to Thomas Pynchon abound. In “Discovering America,” a barely veiled account of Jones’ encounters with anti-Indian racism on the job (his work crew in Carlsbad wants to know if he’s scalped anybody, while Texas oil workers ask Jones if they still run over Indians in Montana), the author has his own fun with the Pynchon comparison. When a group of Arkansas college students approach the creative-writing professor about his “spirit animal,” he goes nuclear with the sarcasm: “I become that tall, silent Indian in Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Mortality and Mercy in Vienna’ right before he goes cannibalistic in the middle of an otherwise happening party. The working title of the play I’m still writing is The Time That Indian Started Killing Everybody, and standing there with my beer I don’t revise it.”
The anthology’s introduction by the book’s editor Theodore C. Van Alst Jr. helps situate Jones on the literary map. But the best explanation of Jones comes from the author himself. In his own introduction to this anthology, he lays out just what’s wrong with the term literary horror to summarize what he’s doing on the page. “It’s still and forever an insult when I hear somebody describe a book as ‘literary horror.’ What they’re saying is, hey, that horror book is good enough to return to, it’s deep enough for a second read. Which is a compliment. Just one that insults the rest of the genre.”