Book introductions. I’m sometimes fooled, but I keep going back to the well. Whether written by the author, editor, or colleague, they typically give the reader something to look forward to, a perspective on what’s to come. It can also be false hype/hope. With Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001) it is Gaiman himself who led me to believe his novel would be something of an examination of the underlying cultural gears driving my home country—not a scientific dissection, but at least a bit of insight into the tuning. What I got instead was gamesmanship among a who’s who of stereotypes from the world’s pantheon of deities, played out against ‘modern gods’ like technology, media, globalization, etc. in a style heavily reminiscent of late Roger Zelazny. Very light fare, indeed.
Feeling lucky, Shadow Moon is released from prison a few days earlier than scheduled. But it’s only because his wife Laura has died—in a car accident giving a blow job to his best friend, Robbie. Friendless and despondent on the streets after the funeral, Shadow is contacted by a grizzled old man named Wednesday who hires him as a bodyguard. Introducing Shadow to his elderly friends—a cranky Slav, a drunken Irishman, a stylish black man, etc.—there seems little in the way of protection Wednesday actually needs. Even stranger still, when the going gets tougher, Wednesday actually sends Shadow away to live by himself in a small Wisconsin town. It seems Shadow is the one needing protection, and as he is hunted, his situation becomes more and more complicated.
When Gaiman’s legacy is finally written, it’s likely his Sandman series of graphic novels will be what he is most remembered for. Working with mythology and Jungian (i.e. symbol laden) dreamscapes, American Gods can be seen as a prose extension of similar premise. Featuring a showdown of old and new gods in America, it’s an abstract clash of historical deities (Odin, Anubis, Loki, etc.) that has only slight bearing on actual American ‘gods’ like guns, freedom, cars, money, convenience, family, music, etc. Not a criticism of the novel, this is rather a more honest observation of the actual substance, contrary to Gaiman’s ambitious introduction.
But American Gods does have its issues. The biggest is that it lacks momentum—an underlying, driving purpose to the narrative. Shadow is just kind of tossed about for roughly three-quarters of the novel before matters coalesce—a fact not helped by the 10th anniversary edition which adds 12,000 words that were cut from the initial publishing. Gaiman does foreshadow a coming collision of old and new gods, but it feels like cut-rate tension with no real boundaries save: gods can be killed, but also can appear and reappear. The climax of the story works great in terms of mythopoiea in modern media, but the road there is rambling, rambling...
In the end, American Gods is a superficially appealing novel, but scratch a little and there’s not much of import. A good idea (to portay key representations of American culture as gods) with poor execution (the characters are deployed in a cheap plot that has more to do with melodrama than culture), American Gods is, perhaps ironically, a bit of popcorn fluff. Like many a Hollywood film, imagery and action are vivid and dynamic, including the big twist at the end, but plot momentum, overall coherency, and underlying substance are despondent. Alternating between stereotype tour and personally invested narrative, the gap is never bridged to the point a great novel—as great as the awards and recognition—would seem to make it, emerges. Gaiman’s later return to the setting in Anansi Boys shows a significant improvement in how plot gels, but it’s his latest novel (as of the writing of this review) The Ocean at the End of the Lane that stands above them all, and, if there is justice in the world, what he should be remembered for perchance he writes nothing better.