American Gods, by Neil Gaiman— a book review



American Gods is a quite terrific novel written and published by Neil Gaiman nearly two decades ago. It is a genre defying work of fiction that, rather than confounding the reading public, went on to win major awards across the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror, because good storytelling trumps everything. I read the original version when it came out in 2001. And then, this year, to coincide with the debut of the Starz television show and the most-excellent Alastair Stephens podcast Storm’s On The Way (which covers both the tv show and the novel), I read the 2011 “author’s preferred text” version that has about 12,000 additional words. All of them good.

It’s a thick book, approximately 750 pages in my paperback copy, which can seem daunting. It’s the way I felt when given such a hefty book to read when I was in school. But, when a story is brisk, entertaining and thrilling, even that lengthy a novel can seem too short. This one has an unusually long first act, introducing all of the characters and setting up the story goals, that makes the second and third acts seem almost truncated.

I’m having a difficult time comparing this novel to anything. On one hand, I want to say that it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read. But, that’s not entirely true. It is, to a large degree, a travelogue, much like Huckleberry Finn or even Lord of the Rings (which I’m also re-reading at the moment). Parts of it even remind me of Watership Down and Stephen King’s The Stand. Although I didn’t read it until after Gaiman’s novel, the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons Watchmen comic series was published well before American Gods, and I detect certainly similarities in tone and, in some parts, structure. The Mr. Ibis vignettes seem a lot like the pirate story interludes. Even though I’m a former comic book nerd, I am not familiar with Gaiman’s work in comics at all, but I understand there’s similarities to his Sandman comics as well. Come to think of it, even the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon Preacher comic book predates Gods, and there are similarities between those two masterworks as well. I’m not implying that American Gods is at all derivative, because, on the other hand (there it is), it’s like absolutely nothing I’ve ever read before.

The obvious comparison would have to be made to the television show, which I also loved. The television program is slavishly faithful to the source material in some respects, but deviates wildly in others. While this may seem like blasphemy to the diehard Gaiman fans out there, I like the characters Mad Sweeney and Laura much more on the television show. SPOILERS AHEAD: Mad Sweeney dies much too early in the novel, and Laura isn’t given nearly as much to do in the novel. Nor is her character as fully dimensional. I feel like I know the television character more than I know the Laura Moon of the novel. That said, I still like Sweeney and Laura in the novel, they’re just not around as much.

What is the novel about? That is a tricky question, and a surprisingly difficult one for me to answer. I’m taking the lazy way out and presenting the jacket copy to you word-for-word:

It is the story of Shadow—released from prison just days after his wife and best friend are killed in an accident—who gets recruited to be bodyguard, driver, and errand boy for the enigmatic trickster Mr. Wednesday. So begins Shadow’s dark and strange road trip, one that introduces him to a host of eccentric characters whose fates are mysteriously intertwined with his own. For beneath the placid surface of everday life, a storm is brewing—an epic war for the very soul of America—and Shadow is standing squarely in its path.

Well, yeah. That’s what it’s about. But–

There’s so much more. Gaiman has painted a masterpiece with words. Too much hyperbole, maybe, but it’s the way I feel. The premise of the entire novel is that gods are created by the people who believe in them, and that all of the “American” gods of the novel came to this land with the people who immigrated to the country, be they indentured servants, actual slaves, outcasts and refugees from other cultures. Or be they Native Americans, or the people who crossed the land bridge following woolly mammoths. Unlike in the television show, Christianity doesn’t figure heavily in the novel, although the author’s preferred text does include a Jesus scene that didn’t make either version of the novel, but most of the other religions of the world are well represented, as are the “gods” of modern technology, in the forms of Media, Technical Boy, and Mr. World. Norse mythology figures importantly in the story, for some reasons I won’t get into because they’re in spoiler territory.

The underlying story question throughout the novel is a simple one. What is Mr. Wednesday’s game, and how does Shadow figure into it? I suppose that’s a compound question, not a simple one. A lot of the unfolding of that story is picaresque adventures and a travel guide to American roadside attractions. Only, much more interesting than how I just made it sound. Throughout the book, an impending war between the gods looms impressively, sometimes literally as storm clouds. The war begins before the book ends, and the war ends–

Nah. That’s telling. That you’ll have to read for yourself.

This is a wholeheartedly Great American Novel written by some British guy, one that I recommend to anyone who will listen to me gush effusively about it. It was my youngest brother’s birthday gift from me this year as well. I can’t recommend anything more highly than that.

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