Book Review: American Gods

Warning: I am not a Neil Gaiman guy. Not that I don’t like him, I’ve just never taken the time to read the man. No Sandman or Death, no Stardust or Graveyard Book. I started Neverwhere but my copy got stolen, and I saw Coraline but never read it. Me finally getting around to American Gods relied on a cheap used copy, nothing else to read, and a curiosity about the television adaptation HBO is doing of the novel. I come to the book not as a Gaiman fan, but as just a genre fan, looking for something serviceable to read. On that account, it worked – it was an easy, interesting read before heading to bed over the course of a couple months. At the same time, I could never shake the feeling that such a grandiose idea for a novel could have added up to something more. Overall, the gods are pretty obvious.

Our protagonist, a hulking guy the reader will come to know as Shadow, is only a few weeks away from getting out of prison when his dreams of freedom are soured by the news of his wife’s death. Directionless, Shadow starts to meander home once he’s released, only to run into a shady old-timer by the name of Wednesday. Wednesday offers Shadow a job as his protector, enforcer, hired goon…whatever Wednesday needs him for. He’s a classic shark, more of a grifter than a straight up gangster. Of course, he’s much more than that as well.

It’s probably not spoiling much at this point to say that Shadow’s job is not of the average criminal variety. Wednesday takes him down a bizarre rabbit hole over the course of American Gods, one in which Wednesday’s shady pals have ways of appearing in impossible majestic guises, invading Shadow’s dreams, and speaking of a cryptic upcoming war. That, and Shadow’s deceased wife starts to catch up with him. The impossible blooms in front of Shadow, and he… takes it in stride and keeps going. He’s quiet, a bit suspicious, but more than anything, just game to help out Wednesday in order to forget about his past life. He’s a sweet guy, someone the reader can relate to, but he seems to be nursing something a little bit darker, heavier.

Shadow himself could probably use a bit more fleshing out, but the goal of the book is less to tell his story, and more to give us a ground-level peak into the workings of the gods. Gaiman’s story cuts back and forth between Shadow’s tale, and a random history of a number of unrelated gods, telling tales of the long suffering and strident beliefs that give birth to (and eventually kill off) what we know to be the gods. Shadow’s story is more of a way to present Gaiman’s own musings on what is currently occurring in our own society, as old-time religion gives out to the weight of a culture that puts more stock in the vices of the modern world – money, education, and the newest technologies. Sure, millions and millions upon people still say they believe in God, but how much time do they spend worshipping him versus fretting over their credit score?

That’s Gaiman’s goal here – not just to turn the workings of the gods into a vision of classical gangster tales, but more so to create an epic allegory for how humanity’s systems of beliefs are completely changing. (Although, as Gaiman will eventually argue, it’s not that simple.) At times, these basics metaphors – the gods of the internet and the Vegas casinos facing off against the gods of wilderness and rebirth  – can be damn obvious and rank. And, as Shadow as left to wander through great swathes of the novel without a clue, the narrative can feel unfocused and tiring at times. Plus, if you’ve spent much time musing on faith, spirituality, and the modern world, you’ve probably thought over most of the ideas here (minus a blistering hidden critique of Christianity buried in the book’s conclusion.) Not to quickly pigeonhole myself on Into-the-Dark as the guy always arguing, “These ideas really aren’t that smart,” but you don’t have to be a master theorist to figure our American Gods fast.

But you’ve got to hand it to any text that really seeks to question the roots of spirituality, that pushes fantasy beyond its more clichéd elements, and risks wandering through territory that comes across aloof and less-than-narrative. It helps that Gaiman’s prose is smooth, going down fast and easy, and though the characters here don’t change the world, they’re solid takes on classic personalities. If this HBO adaptation is ever completed, it will be fascinating to see how these ideas look in live images. Until then, though, American Gods is worth the time if you want something easy-to-read, a little darker, and a little deeper than your average fare.

Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 

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About Josh_C

Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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