As a newcomer to Neil Gaiman’s works, I found his American Gods mind-boggling in the literal sense of the word. When I finally turned the last page and put it down, I just sat there trying to figure out what it is I had just read—was it a good yarn filled with mythology, walking corpses, battles royale; was it a convoluted American road trip; was it a spoof of America by a Briton; was it a lament over the loss of faith in American society and/or a political commentary on the commercialization/”technification” of America? Given the iconic stature Gaiman’s novel has achieved in the past decade, I can only assume that it is all of the above.
American Gods is the story of Shadow, a very quiet, very big, very ordinary kind of a guy serving time for beating the crap of some fellow thieves and counting the days until he can be reunited with his beloved wife Laura. He is released from prison early when Laura is killed in a car accident, and he goes back home to find nothing there for him—no family, no friend, no job, and the discovery that Laura had betrayed him with his best friend. So when a well-heeled grifter called Mr. Wednesday–who seems to know everything about Shadow–offers him undefined employment, he accepts. Shadow and Wednesday embark on a road trip of middle America (Gaiman mixes together real and fictional places, to keep us guessing), and little by little Shadow learns that Wednesday is in fact an incarnation of the Norse God Odin, who is attempting to rally the scattered and fading Old World gods brought over with the immigrants that make up America, to fight a battle for the soul of this country against the “new gods” of the internet, the credit card, the media, the automobile, the neon lights.
Some men-in-black types are deployed to stop Wednesday and his sad army of divine/satanic “has-beens,” who include the Hindu goddess of death Kali, the pagan goddess Easter, the African Anansi, the Egyptian gods Anubis, Bast, and Horus, and many more. But the enemy also appears to have fixated on Shadow for no obvious reason, and he survives a number of close encounters with their murderous henchmen, in part due to the intervention of his dead wife, who was accidentally reanimated and is determined to protect Shadow before she rots away. A benumbed Shadow, meanwhile, stumbles through his first weeks on the job, meeting peculiar characters, getting beaten up a lot, dreaming strange dreams, and practicing the coin tricks he began learning in prison to keep himself sane.
Gaiman’s novel takes on an increasingly psychedelic quality, starting with Shadow’s dreamed encounters with the dead Laura, his fantastic carousel ride with the gods, his visit to the stars with the Zorya sister, his vigil for Odin at World Tree, his sojourn in the land of the dead, his underground consultations with the buffalo-headed (Native American?) god, and much more. And yet, as strange a turn as the novel takes, it is also grounded in the real-life drama of Shadow’s efforts to cope with both Laura’s betrayal and her death, his unusual relationship with Wednesday/Odin and his growing commitment to Odin’s cause, and the almost “ordinary” sub-plot surrounding the mysterious town of Lakeside and its missing children. Throughout the novel, one watches Shadow change and grow into something much larger than himself, and it is at the same time mysterious and, somehow, inspiring.
The final battle, worthy of a Marvel comic, and the understated and mysterious conclusion to the novel, left my head spinning. A sequel, of course, is in the works. Word is that American Gods is about to be serialized by HBO, and as much as I would like to see what they can do with such a complex novel, I fear that it will lose something in the translation to screen, even with Gaiman writing the screenplay. Whatever the outcome, this is a book worth reading — and puzzling over.