Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Review--American Gods

While I read American Gods a long while ago, I was just reminded that this past September 3rd was the book's tenth(!!!) anniversary of publication.  In light of that, I wanted to write the review of Neil Gaiman's masterpiece that I never did.

The book concerns a man named Shadow.  Shortly after getting out of prison, Shadow learns that his wife and his best friend were both killed in a car crash (I will leave it to the reader to learn the circumstances of the traffic fatality.)  As if by kismet, a strange man named Mr. Wednesday shows up to offer Shadow a job as "the man who does" for Wednesday. With nothing left of his life, Shadow accepts.
The two men set off on a cross-country roadtrip across America.  As they travel, Shadow learns that a world exists that most people are utterly unaware of.  Every god that ever existed in human history is real.  When Europeans and other cultures migrated to new lives in America, they brought these gods with them.  But when people cease to worship gods like Odin, Anubis, and Cherznoborg and begin to worship the new gods of marketing and technology, the old gods lose their power...and they must take up ordinary lives amongst us mere mortals. There is a storm coming and Wednesday knows it.  The old gods will confront the new.  Odin must gather all the gods that he can for the "coming storm," a conflict in which Shadow finds himself a combatant.

Part urban fantasy, part horror, part sprawling road excursion a la Kerouac, American Gods is Neil Gaiman at his finest.  Distinctive characters combine with darkly thrilling settings.  At the risk of running into literary cliches, I believe that Gaiman makes myth accessible.  He has done just that time and again during his run as writer for the comic book, The Sandman.  The reader need not necessarily know the various dramatis personae of Russian or Greek myth for the author will provide such strong characterization for them that one can easily suss things out for themselves.  Not only that, Gaiman has a penchant for ensconcing said characters in situations that are easily related to us mere mortals.  In his stories, we can cry for a god, feel fearful for a god, and laugh at the wry wit of a god.  There is just such an intimacy in Gaiman's text.  I really don't know any other way to put it than that.  He is the only author I have ever read that makes me feel like he is drawing me to a fireplace in order to tell me a story.
The book also takes us across this land of ours, showing us just how much we hold up culturally in those roadside oddities.  Written shortly after Gaiman and his family moved to the U.S., I believe the book has a cloaked agenda.  The author, I would argue, is trying to find his own identity in his new home vis-a-vis the American identity.  Thus all of the sprawling traveling.  This latter aspect has led a few reviewers on Amazon to give the book a one-star rating, claiming that the plot "goes nowhere."  I think I understand that.  I don't agree with it, but I understand it.  Given that these are travels there is going to be a "chronicles" type of sensibility to the text.  Similar in that narrow respect to Huckleberry Finn wherein Twain actively warns...errr comically threatens...the reader not to look for a plot.  But Gaiman did find a plot and that plot was to look for the soul of America.  He has found that our identity stretches far beyond these shores and into myriad nations and cultures.  Indeed, we brought our gods with us.

This book gets my highest recommendation and is available on Amazon.

On a clearly off-topic note, I am very saddened this evening to hear the end of R.E.M.  I'll post on this...whenever I'm ready to accept it.

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