Neil Gaiman’s epic American Gods would be a great subject for a master’s-level analytical essay. But since my humble blog promises to keep reviews “short and informal,” this post will barely address the intricacies of the masterpiece. Still, I hope the cursory glance I provide here will tempt you enough to savor the novel for yourself.
But before you do, you should know that it starts kind of befuddlingly and stays that way for a while. Let me clarify. Gaiman doesn’t write the ungraspable stream-of-consciousness gobbledeegook that we’re force-fed in Modern Lit courses. You’ll follow his every word and sentiment. What I mean is this: The story can feel plotless. It meanders down seemingly random threads to dangling ends. But KEEP READING! All of those threads are actually hot wires that will connect and detonate in a fantastical conclusive bang.
The story centers on Shadow, a lovable convict who practices coin tricks and misses his wife. Despite Shadow’s resolve to avoid trouble after his release, he’s inexplicably suckered into working for Mr. Wednesday, a prolific rule breaker, who also turns out to be Odin, the “All-Father” of Norse mythology. Shadow and Wednesday travel the country to recruit other old, forgotten gods for a great battle against the insipid contemporary deities.
|Odin the Wanderer (1869)|
by Georg von Rosen
Along the way, you’ll meet a motley cast of historical and present-day people, ancient supernatural beings, and also the modern gods who try to compel Shadow away from Wednesday’s service. In his loyalty to Wednesday, Shadow gets caught in some brutal physical encounters and several supernatural events.
For at least half of the novel, it’s unclear why Wednesday has chosen Shadow and why the contemporary gods are bent on his elimination. But chapter by chapter, the picture sharpens, and the brilliance of the story will emerge. Sex and love, intrigue and betrayal, con jobs and killings, all culminate in a great oblation, and finally, absolution.
I’m not a student of mythology, so I’m certain (and disappointed) that I missed a lot of beautiful nuances and allusions. But with my background in Christian studies, I can confirm that Gaiman incorporates several biblical references ⎼ shadows, if you will. Don’t get hung up on them. The author knows his stuff, but American Gods is not an allegory.
The edition I read is the “Author’s Preferred Text.” I don’t know how it differs from other editions, but in the appendix, Gaiman includes a passage that he omitted from the body of the novel. It’s where Shadow meets Jesus. I liked it. I think it would have been good in context. But based on the commentary, I understand why he kept it out, and why he couldn’t quite entirely keep it out.
The only other Gaiman book I’ve read (so far) is the Graveyard Book, an excellent juvenile fiction. Based on these two reads, I can tell you that Gaiman has a leaning toward the macabre. His work is far from horror though. It’s just a step into a fantasy world that can be dark, maybe a little dangerous, but mostly an alluring adventure. His objective is not to frighten, but to present a new angle on things you might have otherwise considered scary. He writes for the masses, but this is no pulp thriller. He tells a great redemption story, but it’s not a religious text either. American Gods is lavish and complex and, honestly, deserves a second reading for full appreciation. I hope to have that second reading before long, but even more, I hope you pick up the book and get at least one great ride with it.