American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Posted October 14, 2010on:
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is unlike any novel I have read before. I’ve read this book a few times, and what’s nice about reading it again is since I know what the main plot line is, I can focus on all the little details. American Gods is a book of illusions, and as any illusionist will tell you the trick to the perfect illusion is misdirection.
Shadow is about to get out of jail. He’s a good guy who made a bad decision, and after three years behind bars he’s ready to keep his head down and live the cleanest life anyone has ever seen. The day he gets out, he learns that his wife, Laura, has been killed in a car accident. On the airplane trip home, Shadow meets a Mr. Wednesday, an old grizzled man who knows way too much about him, his wife, his time behind bars, everything.
At Laura’s funeral, he learns she was sleeping with his best friend.
Confused and directionless, Shadow takes Mr. Wednesday’s offer to be his assisstant and errand boy, and they start driving to Wisconsin. As he watches the old man charm and trick his way in and out of anything they need, Shadow starts to wonder what he’s gotten himself into. Maybe he’s not as concerned as he should be, maybe he feels like he’s got nothing to live for, so why not just go with the flow?
What kinds of Gods exist in the United States? I’m not talking ’bout the old bearded dude or his son that so many people seem to know so well, I’m talking about the old, older gods. The gods and myths who came to the new world when those who would become the Native Americans crossed the land bridge from Siberia, the gods that came over with the Vikings, with the African slaves, with the European immigrants. When the people came, they brought their mythologies, their cultures, their believes and their gods with them. Like their people, some of the gods lived, and some of them died. The ones who are still living want the same thing you and I want – they don’t want to die. What do you need to not die? Food, water, maybe shelter. Gods, both big and small, old and new, need belief and sacrifice to survive.
Mr. Wednesday is a representation of Odin. You know, from Norse mythology? He sees the new gods taking shape in the new world – Media, Electronics, Industry, Capitalism. He feels a final battle is coming, one in which there can only be one winner. Wednesday means for that winner to be the old gods, the ones that deserve to survive. Wednesday takes Shadow around the country with him as they try to rally the troops, the old gods, to their cause. They meet with representatives of a global pantheon of gods and folk heroes – Native American, African, Slavic, German, Norse, Hindu, Egyptian, and more. I love how Gaiman infuses his mythos with personality. Easter loves springtime, and eggs, and food and picnics. Ibis, Bast, Jackel and Horus run a high end funeral home. The Zorya sisters make horrible borcht, and Chernobog loves betting on a game of checkers and bragging about his skill at ending lives. It makes me sad I didn’t have a great grandma who would tell me stories of the old country.
Shadow and Wednesday are successful in rallying their troops, but the gods of the new are on their tail, headed up by a Mr. World, whose henchmen are slowly but permanently killing off the old gods. This is a story about a paradigm shift, about old verses new, about what gods want vs what you think they want. Shadow is always asking these gods that he meets what’s real and what’s an illusion, and their answer always is “Yes.”
Wednesday’s friends keep telling Shadow that as a human, he doesn’t have to be a part of this, he shouldn’t have to be a part of this, this isn’t his fight. Shadow’s got nothing else to do, and besides, he keeps seeing his dead wife, and she’s freaking him out. Laura seems to be following him everywhere, and when she can she protects him from Mr. World’s henchmen. Shadow is still confused, and still without direction, but his experiences with Whiskey Jack, and Mr. Nancy, and Mr Hinzlemann begin to give him something to live for.
Running parallel to the main plot is a series of unrelated short stories, of peoples who came to the New World. Why they came, how they got here, and who they brought with them. Some readers might find these distractions, but they are nice little palette cleansers in between courses.
For me, and more so every time I read it, American Gods is majestic, inspiring, satirical, tricksy, and deftly written. If you’ve never read American Gods, or any Neil Gaiman and you’ve gotten this far into the review, you might be thinking “this sounds like one of those weird religion books”. It isn’t, at all. But wait, I take that back. If you look at the magic of illusions in just the right way, from just the right angle, American Gods might be one of those religion books, but not in the way you think.
Complaints about this book include that it takes forever to get off the ground, and that the end fizzles. American Gods might be about the final battle, but it is not an action story. If you’re expecting Thor to be kicking some ass, or giant bolts of lightening to be hurled down from Mount Olympus, you are going to be dissapointed. This isn’t that kind of story. Shadow has to learn for himself the part he wants to play in the final battle. He needs to understand each side, what they need, what they want, he needs to understand what’s going on. And when he does, when he enters the final battle. . . . if I told you, it would spoil everything.