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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Book Name: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher(s): William Morrow
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy / Noir
Release Date: June 19, 2001

The back cover and inside jacket of American Gods would have you believe this is a novel about gods, carefully hidden amongst American mortals, gathering their forces for a bloody civil war, and the ex-con who gets caught up the impending battle.

These things do indeed happen, but they aren’t at all what American Gods is about, much the way that Sandman and The Ocean at the End of the Lane transcended their plots to tackle far larger themes. Like the coin tricks Shadow practices or Wednesday’s endless shell games, it’s impossible to understand American Gods by staring directly at it – it’s about the details, the minutiae you notice from the corner of your eye. As Shadow, our emotionally shattered noir-style protagonist, notes near the end of his adventure, “It’s like one of those dreams that changes you. You keep some of the dream forever … but when you go looking for the details they just kind of slip out of your head.”

It’s a bittersweet novel, as even the gods must face their own mortality, faced with the fact that America is a land that doesn’t keep gods or even ideas for long, and that eventually, they will all be unmourned and unremembered. Shadow himself is so broken after three years spent in prison and the death of his wife that he takes everything in an unsurprised, matter-of-fact manner. At one point, even the god Wednesday questions Shadow’s unquestioning acceptance of the madness that surrounds him:

“Why don’t you argue?” asked Wednesday. “Why don’t you exclaim that it’s all impossible? Why the hell do you just do what I say and take it all so … calmly?”

“Because you’re not paying me to ask questions,” said Shadow. And then he said, realizing the truth as the words came out of his mouth, “Anyway, nothing’s really surprised me since Laura.”

Some may criticize Gaiman for building his story around a character this detached from everything taking place around him, but the book needs a quiet, steady character to balance the madness. Shadow shuffles through a world chock-full of outlandish, larger-than-life characters: Wednesday, who seems to make his way through life via a series of cons perpetrated against unsuspecting dupes; Anansi, the African trickster god wearing a bright yellow suit and matching hat; the grim Czernobog, who challenges Shadow to a game of checkers. The stakes? If Shadow wins, Czernobog will join Wednesday and the old gods in the battle to come. If Czernobog wins, he gets to kill Shadow with a blow from his hammer. As Shadow is introduced to all this and more, he more or less flows with everything that takes place, giving the story a dreamlike sensibility that Gaiman makes possible through his uncanny knack for description and wordplay.

Despite the perpetual threat of violence, this isn’t an adventure fantasy story, it’s a road-trip-across-America meets noir fantasy. For sizeable chunks of the book, the story reads like a travel itinerary as Shadow drives across the country. While he makes a brief foray to Las Vegas, most of the places Shadow visits are virtually unheard of – places like the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin, or Cairo, Illinois, or Rock City. This isn’t a book that seeks to explain America through its big cities – it prefers the spaces in between, and illustrates them in a way that makes them seem tremendously important.

As Starz now prepares to turn American Gods into a television series, I’m eager and yet hesitant to see how they adapt a work that is so uniquely a product of Gaiman’s voice. For all the sadness and world-weariness that permeates the pages, Gaiman’s gallows humor (the very best kind of humor, Wednesday tells us) allows us to laugh, such as when Lucy from I Love Lucy begins talking to Shadow through the television and asks him if he’d like to see her tits, or when Shadow asks one of Wednesday’s ravens to say “nevermore” and the raven replies with curt profanity.

Gaiman is even better with the quiet moments, such as when Czernobog, a Slavic deity whose name means “black god” describes his counterpart, Belobog.

“When we are young, his hair, it is very blond, very light, and people say he is the good one. And my hair it is very dark, darker than yours even, and people say I am the rogue, you know? I am the bad one. And now time passes, and my hair is gray. His hair, too, I think, is gray. And you look at us, you would not know who was light, who was dark.”

It’s a moment that tells us about Czernobog, but more importantly, it’s Gaiman’s way of quietly touching just one of the larger themes that permeate throughout the tale. Can the upcoming television show recreate that magic? Should it even try? I don’t know. I just know that when it does, if it does, I’ll be watching. After all, as Canada Bill Jones would say, it’s the only game in town.



  1. Avatar John says:

    I wanted to like this book, I tried to finish it. I put the book down near the end and got busy and never picked it up again. When I thought about it, I just didn’t care what happened to anyone in the book. To me, the characters were devoid of any interesting traits to keep me wanting more.

    With all of the great reviews, I still have not finished a Neil Gaiman book…obviously I’m in the tiny minority. Are there any authors who write similar books that could ease me into Neil’s writing style?

  2. […] My review of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods: […]

  3. […] Gaiman closes the collection with “Black Dog”, which returns us to Shadow’s tale following American Gods and The Monarch of the Glen. If you haven’t read American Gods yet, I can’t recommend it highly enough (the Fantasy-Faction review is here). […]

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