Stephen Graham Jones, the bestselling author of The Only Good Indians and My Heart is a Chainsaw, continues his literary streak with Memorial Ride, a graphic novel described as a "high-speed, ragtag chase across the American Southwest." On Wed., Nov. 17, Jones will join the recently expanded White Whale Bookstore for a virtual reading and conversation
Memorial Ride is Jones’ second graphic novel and is a wild ride from start to finish. The work tells the story of Cooper Town, a Native American soldier who returns to the U.S. from the Middle East for his father’s funeral. Cooper plans to make some quick cash off of his father’s Harley, and reunite with his girlfriend Sheri Mun, but their reunion is intercepted by the infamous John Wayne Gang, and what was supposed to be a quick trip becomes a fight for their lives.
“Probably three or four summers ago when I wrote this, or right before I wrote this, I fell into a John Wayne hole," says Jones on the origins of the John Wayne Gang. "I suddenly just had to read everything I could on him and watch every ridiculous Western I could find. I got my head so full of John Wayne stuff that it had to come out somewhere. And for a long time, I had had the image of these four riders on horses pulling up to the campfire or something and they're all wearing John Wayne masks.”
Jones says that while this vision was a part of his creation of the John Wayne Gang, it was also equal parts “coming face to face with the core American myth.” In the graphic novel, we don’t actually see the John Wayne Gang donning John Wayne masks, but they do wear bandanas over their faces, giving the appearance of a very traditional American outlaw or bandit. For Cooper Town, a Native American vet, to go toe to toe with this myth speaks volumes.
Jones also acknowledges the roles that Native Americans have had in John Wayne movies, and how making the John Wayne Gang the central villain of the book was a way of interrogating that.
“The natives never really get a very good shake," says Jones, who is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation of Montana. "You know, we're always props or we're disposable or we're the problem. We're just kind of an expression of the land and the land has to be tamed. So we have to be dealt with one way or the other, it's usually violently,”
Memorial Ride has no shortage of violence, within the pages characters are shot or tortured, but who is performing that violence is notable. At the center of it all seems to be the John Wayne Gang, and in a way, that American myth becomes the perpetrator of violence as well.
Reading the graphic novel was a quick endeavor, at an easy 99 pages, it wasn’t the kind of literature that you spend all day or a few days trying to read. But being a quick read doesn’t mean the storytelling is lacking. Each character serves a very specific purpose, and Jones’ writing spares no detail. Paired with the images by Maria Wolf, the experience of reading the book is incredibly immersive.
Memorial Ride reads like an action-thriller, and at times has the energy of a horror movie. That tension of what’s going to happen next, what will be revealed, is carried throughout the book, even to the very end. Other readers of the book have described it as "high octane," and they're right. Cooper Town's journey will have you gripping the pages with anticipation.
At the core of the story, though, is an examination of the relationship between father and son, and you get the sense that Cooper’s relationship with his father is less than ideal.
“Father and son relationships seem to always be fraught and complicated, but there is, or can be resolution," says Jones. "They don't have to all end in bitterness and 20 years of silence. They can end a little better than that,”
Memorial Ride is available for purchase now. You can also register for the event at the White Whale Bookstore website.
Virtual Reading & Conversation: Memorial Ride, Stephen Graham Jones with Anjali Sachdeva. 7-8:30 p.m. Wed., Nov. 17. White Whale Bookstore. Online. Free. Registration required. whitewhalebookstore.com/events