American Gods is a scary, strange, and hallucinogenic road-trip story wrapped around a deep examination of the American spirit. As with most noir heroes, we meet Shadow, the protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s hard-boiled fantasia after he’s lost everything. Fresh from doing three years in prison for a stupid crime, he learns that his beloved wife, Laura, is dead, killed in a car accident with his best friend, the guy who’d promised him a job when he got out. To make matters worse, he has a series of unsettling encounters with a persistent older gentleman in a pale suit. Each meeting seems to be the result of extravagantly improbable chance, and the gentleman, who offers Shadow a job as his bodyguard, just won’t take no for an answer.
If you have a basic knowledge of mythology and a vague idea of what “American Gods” is about, you can figure out this fellow’s real identity pretty easily. Shadow, however, hasn’t yet realized that he’s stumbled into a kind of underground, a loosely connected network of burned-out, down-on-their-luck deities, the remnants of every god, godling or other supernatural being that any person who ever set foot in America has ever believed in. over time, their circumstances are, to say the least, reduced: Wednesday, who used to be a contender, ekes out a living by running cons on inattentive clerks and bank customers, and later in his adventures Shadow will meet a Mr. Ibis and a Mr. Jacquel, who run a shabby-genteel mortuary. Wednesday, once known as Odin the All-father, is roaming America rounding up his forgotten deities in preparation for an epic battle against the upstart subjects of human worship- the Internet, credit cards, television, and all that is wired. Shadow agrees to help Wednesday, and they whirl through a psycho-spiritual storm that becomes all too real in its manifestations. For instance, Shadow’s dead wife Laura keeps showing up, and not just as a ghost–the difficulty of their continuing relationship is by turns grim and darkly funny, just like the rest of the book. Armed only with some coin tricks and a sense of purpose, Shadow travels through, around, and underneath the visible surface of things, digging up all the powerful myths Americans brought with them in their journeys to this land as well as the ones that were already here. Shadow’s road story is the heart of the novel, and it’s here that Gaiman offers up the details that make this such a cinematic book–the distinctly American foods and diversions, the bizarre roadside attractions, the decrepit gods reduced to shell games and prostitution. “This is a bad land for Gods,” says Shadow.
Gaiman’s ability to entwine multiple plot lines with clever cultural critiques while maintaining fantastic character descriptions and an engaging narrative solidifies the fantasy/horror author’s place as one of the world’s best storytellers. Much more than a magical tale of combating Gods, Gaiman paints a picture of a melting pot left too long to boil, and a country who worships the next big thing a bit too easily and with little consideration for its ancestry.
Definitely worth buying, and undeniably worth reading (all though you might want to slow down a bit more than I did!). And while you’re at it – check out “Stardust” and “Neverwhere”, you won’t be disappointed