Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

American Gods

The first thing you must understand about Neil Gaiman’s American Gods before reading it is that it was a bestseller for a definite reason: it was written in bestseller-style, having all the rock n’ roll moves of a bestseller. Shadow is an ex-con with a heart of gold who made a mistake which was a combination of bad judgment and bad temper but which cost him both three years in jail as well as his marriage. The day he was released from prison he learned of the death of two people: the owner of the health club where he had worked previously and where he was slated to work again, and his wife. Oh, yeah, it seems they died together in a car crash while she was giving the driver a blowjob which caused him to lose control of the car and crash it.

Shadow is flying home from prison when he encounters a strange old man named Wednesday who offers him a job as a glorified errand boy. Turns out Wednesday is the modern incarnation of Odin, chief Norse god, who is trapped in America because he was brought there in the minds of emigrés over the centuries. But as less and less people believe in him–along with all the other ancient gods from Greek to Roman to Hindu to Chinese–they are slowly dying, being replaced by modern gods such as Media and some nerdish computer kid.

Immediately I was reminded of two things I’d read years ago. A myth entitled “Great Pan is Dead” bemoaning his death, and that of all his Olympian cohorts, at the hands of Christianity which had replaced them with a newer God. And an article by Poul Anderson in Galaxy in the 1960s called “Poulfinch’s Mythology” in which he created a modern pantheon to replace the former gods who no longer existed through disbelief.

Wednesday and his fellow gods face another threat as well. It seems the modern gods are not content to replace the olden gods gradually but, as typical of modern life, they are impatient to replace them immediately. So Wednesday was gathering his forces for a showdown between old and new gods.

American Gods was interesting reading, as Shadow accompanied Wednesday on his travels trying to gather all the former gods together for a final cataclysmic battle for survival against the new gods. Somehow Shadow becomes a target of the new gods as they try desperately to eliminate him for reasons not clear in the first half of the book.

There are lots of things to like about American Gods. Shadow’s character is well-developed, both emotionally and with the type of quirks indicative of fully-developed people. And the book exudes mystery, many unanswered questions that the reader mulls as Shadow himself does. As the book reaches its climax, all the mysteries are eventually answered, as well as a few which were not even apparent earlier. Items which had seemed like fascinating red herrings early in the book come to be important clues to the overriding mystery at the end. It makes for a more satisfying denouement than I expected, one which had me chuckling and appreciating Gaiman’s cleverness in putting it all together.

It’s not a perfect novel. Some of the scenes during Wednesday and Shadow’s travels are clever but unessential. I never did totally understand Shadow’s dead wife Laura, how she came to be such an important factor in the novel’s climax while dead. But when you’re dealing intricately with gods and beliefs, it is easy to accept some not-quite-logic so long as it is not too frequent (which it is not) nor too overwhelming to the novel itself (also not).

American Gods is enjoyable reading, with enough cleverness at the end to raise it slightly above the level of a typical bestseller, and with enough good qualities for me to seek out Gaiman’s next book, or perhaps one of his previous books which I have not read yet.


  • I think American Gods is first-rate work, and if as you seem to be implying Gaiman set out to write a best-seller, then 1) he didn't do it by following anyone else's formula slavishly but by writing a Neil Gaiman best-seller, and 2) he fully deserved to have one.

    By Blogger john_m_burt, At 6:06 PM  

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