Neil Gaiman, American Gods

A damn brilliant title. It’s the kind of title every writer wishes they had for their book. It’s simple, elegant, epic, and sums up the story without completely giving away what it’s about.

So who are the American Gods? In a post-modern context, they are the ones who represent technology, the information age, and consumer culture. Americans believe in them on some level, whether that belief is acknowledged or not. In America, there is also the professed belief in God, but is it real? The American gods are also those people brought with them when they came to America, such as the gods of the Norse pantheon, Hindu deities, and spirits and other beings such as jinn, leprechauns, and faeries. Belief in these figures on some level brought them to America, making them co-immigrants with indentured servants, slaves, traders, and people who came to settle. Both the old gods and the new ones are manifest in human form and live among the mortals. Despite their quirks, the gods are presented as banal, working and making transactions with human beings. However, an epic battle is ahead, representing a struggle that is not so much between good and evil as it is between old and new.

Caught up in this war is Shadow, a paroled prisoner who has recently lost both his wife and his best friend in a tragic accident right before his sentence is finished. Given that, Shadow is no ordinary man. He has strange dreams and he is able to go into people’s minds. Recurring dreams are about a buffalo with a man’s body and of thunder birds. The deaths of those close him are enough to complicate the story, but Shadow meets a one-eyed con man named Mr. Wednesday, who claims to be the King of America but obtains his means through petty theft, trickery, and hypnotic suggestion. Mr. Wednesday, of course, is one of the American gods. Shadow is persistently recruited by Mr. Wednesday in the beginning, culminating in an agreement sealed by three rounds of mead. Then there is the cross-country trek to meet more of the American gods for Mr. Wednesday’s agenda. Keep in mind that Mr. Wednesday is a con man.

Also vying for Shadow are the new American gods. Shortly after Mr. Wednesday’s recruitment of Shadow, there is a Matrix-like scene where Shadow is abducted by an occupant of a black limousine who, instead of being stylish, is a fat, geeky kid in a black raincoat who spout rhetoric about the information superhighway. Other gods include the television set and a seductive woman who, like a character in Pilgrim’s progress, calls herself what she represents – Media. Somehow, they’ve been goaded by someone who calls himself Mr. World to go out and kill the old gods. And thus begins the battle.

While the main narrative is focused on Shadow’s involvement in the fight between the old and the new, Mr. Ibis, a longtime observer of American history provides some narrative interludes of how the gods came to America. While these short stories provide an occasional rest from Shadow’s long story, they provide insight on how the non-Christian gods found their way to America, a land good for no gods at all. Ibis reveals the ancient Egyptians came up the Mississippi for trade 3000 years ago, the Vikings brought their gods along with them during two colonization attempts, and the African slaves indeed brought their gods along with them, invoked in early voodoo. Mr. Ibis, like most American gods, has taken up some kind of mundane job, one that is close to his supernatural one. He takes care of the dead and records history.

American Gods is a definite page turner, but a stylish one. While this book can be found in the science fiction shelf, it is not purely sci-fi. It has elements of fantasy, but is not a pure fantasy novel. American Gods has the lyrical quality of a literary novel, and the story and its conceits have an affinity for magical realism. The Americana is present throughout the story and Neil Gaiman makes the reader believe it. One can believe the old gods as old, washed out people who try to fight for their existence in a world that is quick to forget them. While the newer gods are quick to point out the older generation’s irrelevance in the 21st century, Shadow points out that they too are subject to the fickleness of modern culture. Read it and see if you can figure out who the gods are.

This entry refers to the UK edition. An American edition is also readily available.