Friday, March 27, 2009

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

The best thing - in Shadow's opinion, perhaps the only good thing - about being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he'd plunged as low as he could plunge and he'd hit bottom. He didn't worry that the man was going to get hurt, because the man had got him. He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.

As soon as I saw heard that Neil Gaiman had written a book called American Gods, I knew I had to read it. I'm not a particularly rabid Gaiman fan. In fact, aside from this novel the only work of his I'd read was the sinister short story "Snow, Glass, Apples" (which I highly recommend, you can find it online and read it in about 15 minutes). But I really like Gaiman's writing style and I'm obsessed with all things mythology. American Gods did not disappoint.

The story follows Shadow, a man recently released from prison after three years of incarceration. Shadow is released a day early after being informed of the death of his wife. On his way home back to Indiana, Shadow meets Wednesday, a man that would throw Shadow headfirst into a battle between the Gods of old and the Gods of new. When I say 'the Gods of New,' I mean modern society's deities. Our worship of the internet, of fast food, of highways, of television, etc. Essentially, American Gods is a story about America, a land of immigrants. Immigrants who brought with them tales and legends of Leprechauns and Ifrits. American Gods asks the question: "If every time a new people came to the New Land they brought their pantheon of Gods with them, what would happen to those relocated deities in a time and a place without faith?"

I thought the idea of foreign Gods wandering around America trying to make lives for themselves after losing all their worshippers was a brilliant idea. I often wonder what it's like for a country like Egypt, where thousands of years ago polytheism ruled the land but now the Bast's and the Osiris's have fallen from worship to become tall tales like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill.

I really enjoyed this book from start to finish. Gaiman introduces Gods from all different regions in interesting, often appropriate fashions. Shiva as a prostitute, Anubis as a mortician, Loki as a con-man. The dialogue is clever and sharp. It's a very trippy plot, bouncing back and forth between POVs and timelines, dealing with deaths and resurrections and reincarnations. Gaiman manages to keep things on an even keel, however, and the conclusion is more or less satisfying in tying up the two dozen or so loose ends created in the narrative. I should mention also that there's a really well done murder mystery subplot set in the all-too-peaceful town of Silver Lake, Michigan. A small girl disappears and Shadow is asked to help in the search. That's about all I can say without giving too much away, but its a really interesting subplot with a satisfying ending.

Like I said, I'm a mythology nut, so this book was almost tailor-made for me. I'll still recommend it to anyone who'll listen though because its a well put together story with interesting characters and a memorable plot.

Highlights: Odin, Mad Sweeney, the Silver Lake subplot, murder by vaginal mastication
Lowlights: No Greek/Roman gods, a little too much Deus Ex Machina... But I suppose that makes sense all things considered.

9 comments:

Amanda said...

I'd heard so many good things about this book, but was really disappointed when I read it. I don't know, it just didn't mesh with me. My dad was reading it at the same time (coincidentally, we found out when we were halfway through) and he really didn't enjoy the book either, but I know so many people who did. I've read Coraline and thought that was cute, and I want to try Stardust and Anasi Boys, but I still don't know about Gaiman. I've yet to make up my mind.

Padfoot and Prongs - Good Books Inc. said...

I am right there with you Amanda. I was really excited about this one, because like you Jim I am a bit of a mythology buff. However, just something about the plot didn't quite click with me. I think it was Shadow's lack of questioning of Wednesday/every crazy thing that was happening. To me, being swallowed whole by a vagina made more sense than the lack of Shadow's concern or interest in why he was brought into this new world. Just me though. Maybe I will have to give it a second chance.

Amanda said...

Padfood (or Prongs?) - my dad had the same problem - he said he couldn't care about Shadow at all, so what was the point.

hamilcar barca said...

Amanda & Prongs (or Padfoot perhaps?) - i'm reading this right now, and so far, i agree with Jim. awesome concept; and a captivating tale. we'll see if that changes in the next 450 pages though.

Nathan said...

Have you read Anansi Boys? Great stuff, reminds me of this. Also Neil Gaiman. If I can find it I'll Afri-mail it to you.

hamilcar barca said...

is Anansi Boys a sequel to American Gods? or just a book that happens to cover related matter?

Amanda said...

I heard Anansi Boys was sort of a sequel, sort of a spin-off, and very different from American Gods in tone.

Nihil Novum said...

Ananasi Boys is really good. Funny. Haven't read AG though.

Jim said...

Anansi Boys is just set in the same universe, I think.

Mr. Nansi was a great character so I bet its a fun book.