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15 february 2022
American Gods came up early in the Guardian's list of 1,000 must-read novels, and I realized I'd never read any of Neil Gaiman's fiction for adults. Coraline I knew, and The Graveyard Book because it won the Newbery Medal, but American Gods was my first Gaiman venture beyond those children's books.
American Gods is a famous book among fantasy and speculative-fiction fans, so I will summarize it only lightly. The novel is part epic and part picaresque. The premise is that all migrants to America have brought with them old beliefs in gods – right back to the first folks to walk over the Bering land bridge. These gods, once the believers forget about them, are hard to kill but also useless; they must potter around the vast unkempt nation, occasionally congregating at centers of uncanny power that in turn become roadside attractions. Newer gods occasionally join the mix: technology, TV.
Our protagonist is a recently widowed ex-con named Shadow who gets hired by an unsavory one-eyed character named Wednesday who has a thing for trees, and enlisted in a recruitment effort in a coming war of old vs. new gods, Götterdämerung all over again. Shadow meets, and is mostly charmed by, gods from the old Slavic, Celtic, African, and other pantheons. He is loyal to Wednesday but also conscious of a personal goal: to use all this surplus supernatural power somehow to resurrect his late wife Laura, who follows him around, teetering between death and decay.
As with nearly all fictions of this kind – clueless newcomer discovers vast intricate unsuspected reality – the process of world-building is more exciting than the story that eventually gets told. Seeing the puzzle pieces fall into place is more interesting, as a rule, than gazing at the completed picture. But Gaiman deserves credit for keeping the story centered on Shadow and his problems. About 3/4 of the way through, Shadow goes out of focus a little and we get the impression that the story is about to explode into gaudy pyrotechnics. But if you stay with it, things come back to a human and individual level.
In fact, maybe too much of the story involves a small-town mystery set in Gaiman's adoptive home, the Wisconsin North Woods. At first this is charming stuff, the gods fading for a while and a little town with its ice-fishing, cozy public library, and banal local newspaper coming to the fore. But eventually this material seems at odds with the big mythological / folkloric themes of the novel (though Gaiman tells a good story in the Wisconsin episodes).
Just 20 years after publication, American Gods also seems slightly dated in its assumptions and settings. Though the book is thoroughly multicultural, one cannot escape the feeling that European settler-colonists are the Americans who really matter, and their gods and legends the most interesting. Several of the more intriguing stories, about early American Indians and about djinn, for instance, are relegated to sidebars; the central stuff is all Western and mostly Nordic at that. Thus the Wisconsin material, though it seems ill-integrated with the rest of the novel, actually is well-integrated in conception: the small town where Shadow fetches up for a while is one of the whiter places in America and thus seems representative of the nation in the novel's imagination.
American Gods is a good yarn, though. It is not my genre at all, yet I read it with attention and admiration for Gaiman's language and his breadth of learning. Most books don't continue to interest for 20 months, but American Gods is alive and entertaining after 20 years.
Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. 2001. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.