This is the second Neil Gaiman book I’ve read; this is classic Gaiman with some of his best writing.
Shadow, who does about three years in prison, cannot wait to get back out into the real world. He has boiled his plans to life outside prison to three things, two of which include taking a bubble bath, making love to his wife whom he loves very much, and staying out of trouble for the rest of his days.
All of this changes when Shadow is introduced to Mr. Wednesday, a man who is more than human. He is called Third, and All-Father, and has two ravens who go by the names of Huginn and Muninn. He is Odin, and with Shadow as his bodyguard and right-hand man, they traverse parts of America.
As Shadow and Mr. Wednesday traverse the United States, they encounter several old gods, gods from Africa, Egypt, and Norse mythology.
Shadow is both shocked and readily accepting of the gods that he meets; he is ready to accept anything at this point. After all, he’s been released from prison, lost his wife, and has been the get-away driver for Wednesday at a bank robbery. He’s capable of doing whatever Wednesday wants him to do. Especially after drinking three pints of mead, the drink of the gods and poets. He also knows a coin trick that Mad Sweeney taught him, something he doesn’t quite remember on account of how drink he was at the time.
Shadow is a unique character in that he’s more of a relaxed, mostly easy-going person. While he does get angry, he does his best not to act on it. I attribute this to his experiences in prison, and how Shadow wants to change as a person. Perhaps life in prison changed how Shadow wants to act in the world. Perhaps this is why he’s not a more violent, more active person until much later in the novel.
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a different kind of book. It’s slower, and meanders a bit as Shadow journey’s from place to place.
But this is the novel where we get the lovely lines about bookstores being the definition of a town: “What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not fooling a soul” (location 4199). I love this observation, because I’m drawn to books wherever I can find them in stores or in friend’s homes. I love to read, and the more I read, the more I learn. Bookstores define a town, and help establish the people living in it.
Gaiman is a fantastic storyteller, and he’s known for his not-quite-so-normal settings. Oh, the world may be something like our own, but as the novel progresses, the world becomes filled with something that isn’t of our world, like gods. In American Gods, there are Norse gods, and African gods, and Egyptian gods. There are new gods as well, ones that are more modern, like Media, for example.
I like how Gaiman sets up his worlds into being something comfortable and knowable, then introduces bit by bit something that is out of the ordinary, like when he introduces Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba, who survives by absorbing her sexual partners, and turns them into worshipers. The scene feels surreal, but also seems to make sense the more you read. After all, this is about the gods of America, the ones who came to this country.
American Gods is a interesting read, sometimes feeling like a challenge to get through. But, if you stick with it, you’ll feel rewarded. The outcome isn’t what I expected, but I liked it. I enjoyed all of the gods, the old ones especially. It was fun for me to pick out the Norse gods, and learn about the Egyptian ones. (In America, we don’t really touch on Egyptian gods, which is a shame, I think, because they’re so interesting.)
Gaiman is a treasure to read. He’s clever, at times vicious, and deft at bringing characters into his worlds. If you’re intrigued by books that break genre, read American Gods.