by Neil Gaiman
Published by William Morrow
480 pages, 2001
Reviewed by David Dalgleish
Much of Neil Gaiman's American Gods is set in that part of America which occupies the most space on the map but the least in the imagination: the Midwest. Around the edges of the United States are places which have accrued myths, legends, status. New York, Boston, Washington, D.C.; L.A., San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Seattle; New Orleans, the desert spaces of Arizona, Las Vegas: these places exist apart from themselves, in the collective imagination. The Midwest, on the other hand, is home to cities like Cincinnati, St. Louis, Minneapolis and innumerable small- and mid-sized towns -- places which may be wonderful and unique, but which seem interchangeable and faceless to those, like me, who do not know them. They have not staked their claim in the distorting mirror realm of popular culture.
One of the things Gaiman does in American Gods -- and it is a book which does many things and does them well -- is fantasticate the Midwest. Gaiman is an English expatriate, now living in Minnesota. He is able to depict the American heartland with the knowledge of a resident and the perspective of an outsider. He takes places like Lookout Mountain, the House on the Rock, the Center of America and Cairo in Little Egypt and makes them part of the book's mythology. It is, to my knowledge, the first major work of fantasy to do this. In Gaiman's hands, the Midwest becomes a wellspring of stories, like John Crowley's Edgewood, Charles de Lint's Newford, Stephen King's Castle Rock and other key venues in the alternate North America invented by fantasy writers.
American Gods is not just a travelogue, however; it has a story to tell. That story begins when a man named Shadow is released from prison after serving three years for aggravated assault. He is released two days earlier than planned because of the death of his wife, Laura. Shadow soon learns that Laura was sleeping with his best friend, who died in the same car crash that killed her. Shadow's plans for his life after prison are thwarted: he cannot return to his wife; his best friend can no longer offer him a job. When the man sitting next to him on the plane home offers him a job as a driver, bodyguard and gofer, it is an offer Shadow can't refuse; he does in fact try to refuse, but the man won't take no for an answer.
It is soon apparent that Shadow's new employer, who introduces himself as Wednesday, is not a normal human being. We learn that he is the Norse god Odin and possesses unearthly abilities. Odin, as it turns out, is but one of many Old World gods and supernatural beings still extant in America. "When the people came to America, they brought us with them," explains Odin. "They brought me, and Loki and Thor, Anansi and the Lion-God, Leprechauns and Kobolds and Banshees, Kubera and Fraue Holle and Ashtaroth ..."
America, in other words, is not just a melting pot of races: it is a melting pot of gods. While working for Odin, Shadow meets, among others, a leprechaun named Mad Sweeney, an Eastern European god called Czernobog and Egyptian deities like Bast and Horus. But the power of these old gods is waning. They are diminished, on the verge of obsolescence, because people don't believe in them much these days. (The idea that gods are literally brought into being by belief -- and cease to exist if no one believes in them any more -- is also used in Small Gods, Terry Pratchett's classic comic dissection of faith, philosophy and intolerance.)
Now, there are new gods in America, "clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon." Odin wants to confront the new gods before he and his fellows are obliterated; he and Shadow, harried by agents of the new gods, travel across America, seeking out the old gods and asking for their aid. The impending conflict looms on the horizon, a growing storm cloud.
Shadow becomes involved in the struggle as Odin's hired hand, but his role soon deepens in significance. He has dreams which imply that he will play a pivotal role and, of course, because he is the hero of a fantasy novel, he does. Gaiman likes to map archetypal fantasy stories onto modern settings and American Gods is no exception: Shadow, like many fantasy heroes, does not know who his father is when the story begins, but by the end he learns his true nature; by helping to save the land from strife, he also comes to terms with his own conflicts and undergoes a rite of death and rebirth. Gaiman handles all of this expertly. He knows the rules of the genre and is able to both honor them and play with them. He meets and exceeds our expectations.
There is, however, a distant air to the proceedings, especially in the first half of the book. At one point, someone tells Shadow that he is not really alive, that he's a "big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world," and this is precisely how Gaiman portrays his hero. After his release and the death of his wife, he is numb, guarded, empty. He does not feel strong emotion, but simply keeps moving. He isn't "scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it." Accordingly, Gaiman tends to describe what Shadow does rather than how he feels. The narrator is a detached observer, not an intimate and at times the reader may feel too much like a detached observer as well. Even so, the hole that is Shadow is filled in over time; he becomes a likable, courageous individual and it would be hard not to cheer for him as the narrative builds to its tumultuous climax, when (in typical Gaiman style) mysteries are explained, hidden agendas revealed and prices paid.
The central story of American Gods involves Shadow and the conflict between the old gods and the new gods, but this is not the only story it tells. As he did in The Sandman, his greatest achievement to date, Gaiman includes a number of short tangential tales within the framework of his main narrative. And, as in The Sandman, these tales are not mere filler: they support and elaborate the themes of the novel and are exemplary models of concise storytelling.
These tales-within-tales could be called "snakes'-hands," a term coined by John Crowley in his novel Engine Summer to describe those parts of a story that diverge from the main narrative but are fascinating in their own right. Crowley's narrator even suggests that "sometimes the snakes'-hands in a story are the best part, if the story is a long one." The "snakes'-hands" in American Gods may not be the best part of this long novel, but they are very fine indeed. They are, mostly, short evocations of the the relationship between American immigrants and the mythic beings of their homelands, ranging from a mammoth skull worshipped by the first people to cross the Bering land bridge to an ifrit encountered by an Arab newly arrived in present-day New York. These "snakes'-hands" help generate a vision of America as a vast, populous patchwork of immigrant cultures, a Babel of beliefs and legends told in a multitude of tongues. They help the author in his task of mythologizing America without reducing it. It is not an easy task, but Gaiman, in his best and most ambitious work since The Sandman, is equal to it. | July 2001