American Gods by Neil Gaiman Review

HarperCollins, July, 2001.
Hardcover, 432 pages.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Shadow didn't like prison at all. After learning the trick of getting people to leave him alone (and not beat the daylights out of him) he settled in to do his time, and count the days until he could see his beloved wife again. Just before he was to be released, he learned that his wife had died in a car accident in compromising and embarrassing circumstances. Feeling lost and betrayed, Shadow drifts aimlessly. He then meets up with the mysterious Mr. Wednesday who offers Shadow a job. So Shadow becomes Wednesday's assistant, and accompanies Wednesday on a mission to contact the ancient Gods, who are alive and living all over America. The old Gods have fallen on hard times. No one believes in them anymore, so they are gradually fading away. In stark contrast, the new Gods of modern society (the Internet, Media and so on) are fat, happy and determined to wipe out their aging competition. Initially ambivalent about the idea of a bloody contest between the new and old Gods, Shadow eventually comes to develop a deep affection for some of the ancient dieties. He will be swept up in conspiracies, con games, and betrayals. And he will have a crucial role to play in the upcoming battle.

American Gods is, by turns, moody, disturbing, hilarious and -- ultimately -- quite moving. The "hero" of the story is Shadow, who is on a mythic quest, although he's not quite sure what he's searching for -- until he finds it. Haunted (literally) by his dead, unfaithful wife, he meets everyone from Easter to Anubis while experiencing the dubious joys of middle America: long road trips, strange companions, greasy diner food, coin tricks to pass the time, and the odd Roadside Attraction. The book can be read on several levels; on one level, it's an entertaining road trip story with a deliciously nasty small town murder mystery as a subplot. On another level, Gaiman explores -- in a most thought-provoking way -- the depths of the American psyche, and the power of our conscious and unconscious beliefs. He also addresses the themes of death, the search for self, meaning in one's life, and redemption through sacrifice.

Gaiman's wit and humor are in full force describing the down and out Gods; the beautiful and hypnotic Queen of Sheba is reduced to turning tricks on Sunset Boulevard; Easter picnics alone in Golden Gate Park; Anubis runs a funeral parlor, and Bast spends most of her time as a cat. The God of the Internet (a pimply, annoying adolescent), the Goddess of Media (honey-voiced, hard-edged, spouting inanities), and the mysterious Government Conspiracy guys are especially entertaining. Mythology buffs will be transported, but even those with only a rudimentary knowledge of multi-cultural legends will find the book compelling. More sweeping in scope and more complex than the delightful Neverwhere and Stardust, American Gods won't be easily forgotten. Highly recommended.

--Claire E. White

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