American Gods (William Morrow-HarperCollins, 2001) is my first experience with fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, excepting Good Omens, a collaboration with Terry Pratchett. I thought I detected more Pratchett than Gaiman in that novel, but the overall theme of myth-come-to-life is the same in both novels.
Shadow is an ex-con who has spent three years in prison for aggravated assault. The story begins with his release – three days early, because his wife has just been killed in a car accident, along with his best friend, for whom Shadow was going to work. Having nowhere else to go and no other purpose, he accepts work doing odd jobs and facing unspecified risks for a shady, one-eyed old man calling himself Mr. Wednesday who knows more about him than he should.
From here Wednesday and Shadow embark on a road trip through midwestern America – a small town in Wisconsin where nothing bad happens except for the occasional missing child; Chicago, where we meet Wednesday’s friend Mr. Czernobog who used to work at the abbatoir slaughtering cattle with a hammer, and the three Russian sisters all named Zorya; Cairo, Illinois, where Shadow works for a time for Messrs. Ibis and Jacquel, two morticians of Egyptian descent.
As it happens, I live across the river from the province of Quebec. The province is home to some 3,000 “wayside shrines.” These structures mark spiritually significant spots: they mark an event or someone’s territory, or just went up because someone felt like reminding the world that he was a French Catholic and proud of it. They serve as a reminder of the Québecois’ cultural identity. But in Gaiman’s America, it is not the wayside cross or shrine that occupies places of power, it is the “roadside attraction.” “People feel themselves being pulled to places here, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendendent,” Wednesday tells Shadow. But instead they “buy a hot dog and walk around feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that” (p. 92). Much of the action in American Gods takes place around such spectacles: for example, the House on the Rock, the Geographical Centre of the U.S., and Rock City.
Why is this significant? Because American Gods is a commentary about the loss of spirituality in America. The transcendence of religion is dying out and being replaced with materialism, convenience, and technology. Wayside crosses play second fiddle to gigantic balls of string. For it gradually dawns on Shadow that Wednesday and his friends are gods, and Wednesday himself is, of course, Odin, the Norse All-Father. The old gods came to America at the same time as their followers, but as fewer and fewer people believe in them, they find themselves growing older and having to turn to shadier means to support themselves. Meanwhile, their place in the hearts of Americans is being taken by new gods: Messrs. Stone, Town, and Road, and a fat kid who sounds like he spends an unhealthy amount of time on the Internet. Obviously a war between the old and the new is brewing, and part of Shadow’s job is to travel around with Wednesday and recruit old gods to take on the young upstarts.
With all these gods lining up to do battle, American Gods has the makings of an epic. Admittedly, the story’s premise is intriguing. I believe the principal characters are a bit more well rounded than many of Gaiman’s critics give him credit for – after all, they are gods, right? Aren’t they supposed to move in mysterious ways?
But unfortunately the structure of the novel is its biggest weakness. Gaiman spends far too long setting up the conflict, so the first three-quarters of the book feels like introduction. Apparently Gaiman had some difficulty deciding whether this was supposed to be an epic or a road trip. Frequent interludes tell little vignettes about how the old gods came to America. Some of these are quite interesting. Others are just gross, such as Bilquis, Queen of Sheba, who turns tricks in L.A. and, um, absorbs a customer. Then, when the final battle does come, it’s a bit of a mess, and possibly a little too conveniently resolved – though, to Gaiman’s credit, all the clues to the surprises of the ending were there if you were reading carefully enough.
At least Gaiman didn’t lose my attention. I don’t know whether American Gods is Hugo- or Nebula-worthy, but at least I will probably re-read Good Omens and give one of Gaiman’s own novels another chance.