Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I have read four books of Neil Gaiman’s to date: Coraline, Sandman: The Dream Hunters, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, and now, American Gods. It is strange to say that I have read four of his books because I don’t necessarily feel as though I’m the biggest fan of his work, or as though I have even begun to scrape the surface of the things he has contributed to the world of storytelling. His bibliography is impressive – a quick perusal of his website reveals that he has written over thirty books, and at least as many comics, not to mention countless speeches, articles, narrated audiobooks, and more. Having read four of his books somehow means I’ve only read a small percentage of what he’s published, and yet somehow I’ve read more books by him than I have most of my favorite authors. American Gods

All of his books have come to me accidentally – that is to say, fortuitously. Coraline happened to be hanging out in the back of a car I bummed a ride in one year in college. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane was gifted to me on an airplane by a woman who had just finished it. Sandman was my sister’s, and it looked interesting sitting on her bookshelf, so I picked it up and read it cover to cover in thirty minutes.

American Gods was also accidental, though perhaps more deliberate. My sister had just bought it from an used bookstore when I finished the last book I was reading and was on the hunt for something different. “Here,” she said. “I just bought this. It’s supposed to be a little strange. Maybe you’ll like it.”

It was a little strange. To say the least.

American Gods is, like all of Gaiman’s writing, a story of breathtaking creativity. The ideas that spring from this man’s head seem to me like Athena springing fully-formed from Zeus’ skull – powerful, bizarre, and incredibly compelling. The book takes the basic concept that things that humans worship come alive, and are real, and are created and feed “on belief, on prayers, on love,” (287) and runs with it, to the point where everything humans have ever worshiped becomes deified, from the old pagan gods like Athena and Zeus to Odin and Loki, to the Judeo-Christian gods like Jesus and the angels, to modern gods like the internet, television, and money. Gaiman examines every different kind of worship, and narrates countless little anecdotes about deities, small and large, and their interactions with humans in America.

The protagonist, Shadow, has just been released from three years in prison when he is informed that his wife has died in a car crash. Empty inside, hollowed out, Shadow boards a plane back home and sits next to a man who identifies only as Mr. Wednesday, and who knows far more about Shadow than he should, or could, as a mere mortal. After the funeral, he recruits Shadow into his service, and informs him that there’s a war on. A war between gods, the old and the new, the old ones dying, starving, unable to survive in this land of crumbling religions and dissipating faith, while the young ones, the gods of technology and modern conveniences, get fat and happy and begin to challenge the authority of the old. Wednesday claims to represent the old guard, and is trying to rally his troops for one last stand in the fight against modernity, and he needs Shadow’s help to win. Thus begins a strange adventure across America, through dying towns and thriving cities, through cornfields, diners, motels, funeral homes, and roadside attractions that seem to have become places of worship for bastard demigods.

The most interesting premise in the book is that “America is a bad land for gods.” Gaiman’s anecdotal (human) characters come from all over the world, bringing their demons and their gods to worship, but quickly forgetting them thereafter. Worship doesn’t last long here, and the old religions, whether pagan, Judeo-Christian, fall by the wayside, to be replaced by gods of railroads, of the internet, of roadside attractions. This cultural observation, of the difference between America and the rest of the world, is one of the most fascinating themes running through the story.

“‘Look,’ said Whiskey Jack. ‘This is not a good country for gods. My people figured that out early on. […] My people figured that maybe there’s something at the back of it all, a creator, a great spirit, and so we say thank you to it, because it’s always good to say thank you. But we never built churches. We never needed to. The land was the church. The land was the religion. The land was older than the people who walked on it. […] And we were the children of the land, just like the porcupine and the skunk and the blue jay.'” (513)

Emotionally, American Gods, like most of Gaiman’s other stories, doesn’t seem to quite hit home for me. Unlike other fantasy novels, even ones that crossover into the real world like The Golden Compass or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files,  the world is too realistic, to critical, too unbeautiful, to be inspiring, and the characters, although energetic and intelligent, are hard to connect with on a deeper level. Rarely do we see the characters’ inner lives, except that of Shadow, and Shadow is too foreign to himself to make a meaningful connection to an even-more-distant reader. I always feel, in Gaiman’s writing, as though the story, the magic, the worldbuilding, is of primary importance, while the emotional impact thereof is held at arms’ length. The same is true here.

There are, however, moments of deep truth. Moments where he cuts through the fantastical to reveal something real. Here is one of my favorite passages from the book, and there are a few others like it, scattered throughout, that rise to the same heights:

“No man, proclaimed Donne, is an island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other’s tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, ‘made into an island’) from the tragedies of others, by our island nature, and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived, and then, by some means or another, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life.” (322)

That said, though, the book is almost dizzying in its inventiveness. Gaiman draws from mythology in almost as much breadth and depth as Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, and the gods and demons that make appearances are far-flung and disparate. Their translations into modern human incarnations is equally fascinating. The way these gods represent themselves to Americans whose pagan faith is long dead is brutally devoid of any real spirituality – after all, religious worship, in the sense of sacrifices, libations, and rituals, is an anathema to most Americans – and this makes it all the more interesting. Gaiman takes religion and strips it bare, while at the same time cutting to the quick of why we remain, to this day, fascinated by the stories and mythologies from around the world.

A recommended read, but don’t expect any of “the feels” along the way.

Page numbers taken from: Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. New York: Harper Collins, 2001. Print.