by Neil Gaiman
A lot of people think religion is on the decline in the United States; that we brought our gods with us and are now casting them aside. Neil Gaiman thinks we’re simply trading old gods for new. Instead of worshiping Scandinavian and African and Indian gods, we worship the gods of television and the internet and drugs and sex. Instead of sacrificing in Odin’s name, we make blood sacrifices to the gods of highways and railroads. Our hero, Shadow, is introduced to this reality immediately after his parole from prison, entering the service of a man called Mr. Wednesday.
You might suppose that this is a combination of fantasy and Elmore Leonard-type crime fiction. It is, in a way, but it’s hard to explain how it actually reads. There are parts of the book that focus on Shadow trying to adjust to a ‘normal’ lifestyle, and there are parts that seem to have no relation to the real world. No matter what’s going on, though, both of these elements are present throughout the novel, and are pretty seamlessly woven into the story.
It helps, of course, that Gaiman can write. I tend to hate the stoic tough guy character, but Shadow is given depth that I’ve rarely seen in crime fiction. One of my favorite passages from the book features Shadow deciding to take a walk by himself, despite the ridiculously cold weather. Minute by minute he realizes that he underestimated the danger, or perhaps he overestimated his ability to tolerate the cold, and his mild annoyance is slowly replaced with panic. This human moment could’ve taken place in a world without magic, but it fits perfectly with Shadow’s character and Gaiman’s writing style.
I should add that, in addition to fitting in with the crime and fantasy genres, American Gods is a novel about the open road, which seems to be a uniquely American theme. I was shocked to find out that Gaiman’s a European; he really seems to understand American localities and cultural quirks. Shadow bounces all over the country on what can only be described as road trips, and Gaiman perfectly captures the freedom, the fatigue, and the anxiety that come with them. The journey to Cairo, Illinois has all of these things, as Shadow starts out alone and is joined by a hitchhiker named Sammi (sans smiley face over the ‘i’). What starts as an awkward situation (I think 70% of hitchhikers end up murdered by psychopaths) ends up with both characters recognizing one another as a kindred spirit, even if they don’t quite understand each other.
The road is just a part of what makes this book so ‘American,’ though. I mean, yea, there’s the title. American Gods. Good look. But each of the characters has a quintessentially American background. Shadow’s family history is never revealed, and he seems to not worry about the past or even the future all that much. All the gods in the book came from other lands, though many admit (or complain, depending on how you look at it) that America is not a good place for gods. I dunno how to explain, but I don’t think it could’ve been the same story if it had been set anywhere else.
Admittedly, American Gods has a weird plot and a weird structure, but Gaiman really makes it work. He’s able to introduce Shadow and the world of the gods simultaneously, and he also interrupts the narrative with occasional ‘Coming to America’ vignettes. The story of African twins who are sold into slavery in America- which has nothing to do with the rest of the narrative- was incredible to read. It might not contribute to the plot of the novel, per se, but it definitely added to its feel.
By the end of the book I was totally drawn into this world. Despite the side stories, there is no part of Gods that felt extraneous to me. I was completely satisfied by the conclusion, and every time i thought that a loose end hadn’t been tied off, or that a subplot was left unexplored, Gaiman settled it, in a way that felt completely natural. He wrapped it up about as well as any book I’ve ever read. Almost every character, living, dead, or somewhere in between, finds his or her resolution.
This is one of the most unique books I’ve ever read, in plot and in style. Though the whole idea may seem a bit ridiculous for an adult novel (not that kind of adult novel), I can almost guarantee that you would enjoy American Gods, even if you’re not all that into crime or fantasy.