Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 2001
Length: 592 pages
Genre: modern mythology
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars
It almost goes without saying that American Gods is a fabulous book. If one person suggests Neil Gaiman to another, this is almost guaranteed to be the book put forth as the best starting point. And there’s a reason for that — despite its mythological focus, despite all the weirdnesses and oddities in it, despite the occasionally non-linear narrative and the seemingly disjointed side stories, this is an incredibly accessible book.
And yet, it’s one I don’t quite know how to write a review for. I’ve been trying for a while now, and somehow, it’s just difficult to sum this book up adequately. It has so many moving pieces, so many things that you might miss on the first, or second, or sixth read-through, but which strike you immeasurably the next time you pick it up. That makes the book a wonderful journey, but it also makes it difficult to review — not least because I don’t want to rob anyone else of the experience of finding those gems for herself.
The book, largely, follows the story of Shadow, a man just released from jail, where he was for three years for armed robbery. He’s released, only to learn that his beloved wife has died in a car accident. On his way home, he encounters Wednesday, a preternaturally knowing older man who offers him a tremendously ambiguous job. When Shadow accepts, he finds himself swept out of mundane reality and into a world far stranger than he had ever imagined. He discovers himself drafted into a war between old gods and new gods — between the mythological entities brought to America by immigrants over the generations, and the new gods of technology and convenience. The idea hinges on a concept which Gaiman explores in other works, notably in the Sandman series, that gods are created by human belief, that they are powerful and impossible to kill while people believe in them, but that when belief is weak, they can die — whether attacked, or by suicide, or by fading into nothingness.
Shadow travels across the country with Wednesday as Wednesday attempts to recruit gods for an upcoming battle. Along the way, Shadow finds himself targeted by the antagonistic, yet self-consciously fretful and defensive, new gods. He receives guidance from some of the old gods, as well as from some folklore heroes who aren’t quite gods, but are definitely more than men. He also has the protection of his dead wife, Laura, who has become walking dead, devoted to keeping him safe. There’s also an extensive subplot, where Shadow spends part of a winter assimilating into a tiny town in northwest Wisconsin — and stumbles into a tangentially-related mystery there. The plot of this book weaves and dodges and meanders, and so it’s hard to summarize much beyond that. You sort of just have to … take the journey.
Some of my favourite parts of this book, though, are the side stories. The Coming to America breaks in the narrative are all fascinating. In these sections, Gaiman explores different travelers to the American continent — from the first people to cross over from Asia all the way to a modern-day Arab salesman. As Gaiman and the narrative point out, Columbus did not discover America; people had been discovering America for thousands of years before him, and kept on discovering it after. We hear the story of the first Norsemen to land on the North American coast, who sacrificed to Odin here, and left their gods behind when they got massacred by natives. We hear the story of Essie Tregowan, a Cornish girl with a Moll-Flanders-esque background, who eventually winds up in a Middle Colony (I suspect, actually, probably somewhere near where I live), whose farm flourishes thanks to the offerings she makes to the spirits she brought over with her. We hear the story of Wututu, an African slave who eventually passes on knowledge of her voudoun gods to an apprentice who doesn’t value them. We hear of Atsula, a shaman of a prehistoric tribe, who questions her god and dies for her hubris.
I don’t just love those stories for the history, though Gaiman does craft each era, each culture, and each character masterfully. I also love what those stories, compiled together, say about America. We forget our gods. We forget where we came from. We forget our origins. And there’s something about Americans that we… we don’t believe as strongly as we might. We believe as a means to an end. We go through rituals because we think it’ll get us something. We lack the bone-deep, marrow-shaking certainty that the gods are out there, and have power, and will help or harm us as it suits them. (And yeah, I do include our most visibly religious faction, the Evangelical Christians, in this; I don’t know what they’re worshiping, but it’s sure as hell not the humble carpenter who told everyone to play along and be nice to each other). We keep the bits that are useful, slough off the rest, and proceed forward at an alarming pace. There’s something there about the American mindset of religion as a tool, about the cavalier way we treat these things. It’s one of those subtler threads that Gaiman’s so good at drawing between things — he doesn’t hit you over the head with the point, but he puts it out there and lets it happen in your head.
This book is a masterpiece, and I don’t say that lightly. It has a truly phenomenal scope and, I think, a phenomenal appeal. People who would not classify themselves as interested in fantasy or mythology, in history or historiography, will all find something to enjoy here — and may well get seduced by genres they never before thought appealing. Shadow is an everyman who is, in fact, not like any man — somehow universal and unique at the same time. American Gods is a fantastic exploration of both the American landscape and the American psyche, a look at the world we live in, how it shapes us, and how we’ve shaped it. If you’ve never read this book, you need to. If you have read it, you need to read it again, because it will have something different to tell you each time you return to it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a World Tree somewhere south of Blacksburg to find.