American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Review by Joshua S Hill
In what is one of his most celebrated works, up there along with Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is one of the best books of its genre. The real dilemma presented us however is understanding just which genre Gaiman was writing. This is not a negative opinion of his writing ability, suggesting that he doesn’t seem to have any idea what he is doing. Just the contrary, American Gods manages to broach several genre barriers all the while making it look as if Gaiman was creating his own genre.
The end result is very much like creating a new species of rose; you take those qualities from other roses that you want, and then splice (is that the right term, or have I gone down a more Frankenstein’s monster route?) them all together. The process may not be all that pleasant, but the outcome is beautiful.
Wikipedia, my source for all things, describes the novel as “a blend of Americana, fantasy, and various strands of ancient and modern mythology.” Of those three, I was already a fan of the latter two (I’m combining mythologies into one), but even having loved American Gods I can’t say that I’m anymore a fan of Americana than I was when I started.
The story follows the “mysterious and taciturn protagonist” (Wikipedia again), Shadow, who starts out a prisoner coming up on his last days in prison. However Shadow is released a few days earlier, due to the untimely death of his wife, Laura. On the flight back home he meets a man, Mr. Wednesday, who shows not only too much interest in Shadow, but too much knowledge to be comfortable.
Wednesday came out of a room down the hall, and beckoned to Shadow.
“How was the funeral?” he asked.
“It’s over,” said Shadow.
“You don’t want to talk about it?”
“No,” said Shadow.
Good.” Wednesday grinned. “Too much talking these days. Talk talk talk. This country would get along much better if people learned how to suffer in silence."
What comes next, after Shadow accepts a job from Wednesday to be his bodyguard and all around odd-jobs man, is a variety of cross-country trips. We quickly get the sense that Wednesday is more than he seems, and Shadow’s unfortunate lack of knowledge seems to be winding him up in a lot of trouble.
Over the course of the book, Shadow is introduced to a variety of Wednesday’s friends, associates and, for lack of a better term, enemies. Gaiman does a commendable job of creating a mythology for America which, like Australia, is a country based upon the fragments of others. And so, naturally, fragments of old gods live across the US. Add to that a mix of American folk heroes like Johnny Appleseed, along with some new gods that the Americans have cooked up, manifestations of modern life and technology like the internet, TV, etc.
The entire plot, not unsurprisingly, is left hinging on Shadow; the choices he has made and the choices he is left to make. And while things don’t come to resolution until the battle is won, there are points where you just wish you could be left alone with Shadow, and the small community of Lakeside.
Shadow shut the front door. The room was freezing. It smelled of people who had gone away to live other lives, and of all they had eaten and dreamed. He found the thermostat and cranked it up to seventy degrees. He went into the tiny kitchen, checked the drawers, opened the avocado-colored refrigerator, but it was empty. No surprise there. At least the fridge smelled clean inside, not musty.
Being born an Englishman, and by Englishman I mean a “man” born in “England”, Gaiman shows a surprising and unerring ability to describe America as if he had not only been brought up there, but had somehow been part of the scenery for a long time. The descriptions of locales all across the country give you the sense that, for a period of time, Gaiman did nothing but drive across the US, occasionally peering into people’s houses, site-seeing and generally attempting to memorize the entire country.
But even having that knowledge would have been nothing, without his almost unnatural ability to write. I imagine Gaiman could write a book about the effects of frostbite and I would still be fascinated, drawn in by his spellbinding and almost magical descriptions.
If you are a fan of either of the three categories, a fan of literature, America, or even a fan of zombies (what’s a dead wife if she can’t come back to visit, eh?), American Gods by Neil Gaiman is for you. And though I can only award it 8 out of 10, it isn’t for lack of trying. It is simply that other things came before it which scored better, and I’m now stuck in a perpetual ratings loop.
Xavier from Vienna
Neil Gaiman has long been on my list of must-read-soon authors. And so following on from reading The Graveyard Book, which gets better and better which each read, I moved onto another of the author's well-know works, American Gods. The first third of the book was okay, the story was interesting enough and the writing skilful enough to keep me interested, but it was not that something special that I had hoped for. However, once past the opening the final two-thirds are very, very good, with the protagonist's say in Lakeside being an excellent story-within-a-story that reminded me strongly of Stephen King (who says very nice things about Gaiman on the book's front cover). I personally don't think that American Gods showcases the very best of Gaiman in that I found it a little clunky and a little too unbelievable (yes, I know this is fiction but still…) in parts to allow for complete captivation. But it is a book that is a very rewarding read, a book that improves as it progresses and a book that should be recommended to those with an interest in American history, and in particular those with an interest in the gods that have been created by the world's peoples over thousands of years. 8.7/10 would be my exact score, which I have rounded up to 9 for this review :)
What did you think about American Gods?
Submit your own reader review and award the book the rating you think it deserves.