Desert Isle Keeper
American Gods is not what you were expecting, even if you’re a Neil Gaiman fan – or even if you’re the author himself, I suspect. It’s just not the sort of thing you pick up a book expecting to read. And like Gaiman’s work in general, it changes every time you read it, becoming better, revealing more of itself to you, answering more questions, and making you ask even more. It is brilliantly, madly, terrifyingly, and exuberantly well-written, and yet I almost hesitate to recommend it because it’s not the sort of thing I would inflict on the unprepared. You need a strong stomach, an open mind, and all of your concentration to read this book. It is not easy. But it is worth it.
Shadow is a waiting man. First, he waits to get out of prison. Then he waits for orders from his mysterious boss, Mr. Wednesday. Eventually, he will have an even longer and more important wait ahead of him. Meanwhile, he waits for the dreams that come to him in his sleep, and for his dead wife Laura to come to him when he wakes. And all the while, he waits to find out what’s really going on.
For Shadow has fallen into the company of both gods and monsters – and the lines between the two are never clear, as he discovers. “No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are,” Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow. Only the heart and soul of America require finding. And they are the prize that the gods of American forefathers will fight the gods of modern Americana (Media, Technology, and the like) to win.
I’ve heard this book compared to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and while that is in its own way appropriate, I find a more immediately evident likeness to Slaughter House Five; Shadow is as much antihero as hero, and the world he suddenly finds himself inhabiting is one that the reader could only hope to find with either Gaiman’s guidance, or enough illicit drugs to make Keith Richards look like an amateur. Either way, that world is a frightening and amazing place, and the journey will not leave the reader unscathed.
Gaiman’s characters rule and range their at-once utterly familiar and completely alien landscape with impunity and punity both; prisoners read Herodotus, mythical creatures drive cabs in New York, and gods whore themselves in Los Angeles. And all the while they share the stage with everyday Americans living and dying, sacrificing, betraying, being. The humor is less evident than in his other works, but there are moments that will make you laugh out loud, or hoot with delight when some pieces of the magnificent puzzle slide deliciously together in your mind. As I said before, this is not a book you can read with half your brain: it will demand the whole thing, and give it back to you not entirely the same as before.
Despite the fact that this is a novel, and a very, very big one at that, Gaiman indulges his fondness for short stories in sly and amusing ways. A certain Mr. Ibis, undertaker in Cairo, Illinois, pens stories of those long-dead immigrants who brought the old gods with them, in their minds and hearts. Meanwhile, Mr. Hinzelmann of Lakeside, Wisconsin delights his listeners with tall tales of his grandpa’s day. Somehow these breaks from the longer narrative only serve to enhance, not interrupt, the story at hand.
American Gods is not calming, reassuring fantasy where you know the good guys and the bad guys, and good always wins over evil. It is graphic, dizzying, terrifying, exhilarating, and occasionally even normal. It is what you don’t expect. And it is worth it.