American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The idea of pagan deities getting old and crotchety is not a new one.
The first Gilbert & Sullivan collaboration
Thespis, or The Gods Grown
Old
built on this conceit. Thornton Wilder’s debut novel The Cabala
also found inspiration in this same concept of grumpy old gods. But
Neil Gaiman adds a new twist by setting his story
in the New World. Yes, these are
American Gods,
in his novel of the same name.

And the United States, as we all know, is a bad
place to pursue a career as a divine being. The
Yankees just worship fame and money. What’s a
poor Odin or Anubis to do? The core idea in
Gaiman’s tale is that the Old World gods were
rought to America with the great tides of im-
migration, only to find themselves gradually
forgotten as the new arrivals became assimilated
into the melting pot culture. These neglected
plenipotentiaries are jealous of the new gods . . .
those are the things Americans worship now,
like their platinum cards, their home entertainment centers, the
Internet and bling.

These two camps engage in skirmishes, and all-out warfare seems
inevitable. The new gods on the block seem better equipped for battle.
It helps that they control all the cool consumer products. When the
almighty God of Television wants to send you a message, he has 500
cable channels, more or less, to choose from. Poor Zeus only had
Hermes and his winged sandals—heck, you might as well send your
divine directives by snail mail.

The premise behind
American Gods is perfectly suited for satire, and
Gaiman dishes out a little—although not as much as I would have
liked. This author, who developed his craft in the world of comic books,
still maintains allegiance to an aesthetic vision that comes straight out
of the pages of DC and Marvel. He knows how to bring to life the
fanciful and magical elements of his story; he understands how to
push the plot forward through a series of crisis points and resolutions;
and he is especially good at adding wry comic elements that lighten an
otherwise dark story. So there isn’t much room left for social
commentary, even if the story ostensibly plays off the fickle tastes of
modern Americans and their inability to distinguish between gods and
goods.

Gaiman’s protagonist, a shadowy character named Shadow, is caught
in the middle of the warring deities. He is a former prisoner with a taste
for coin tricks, who finds himself engaged as bodyguard for Mr.
Wednesday (aka Odin, top dog among pagan Nordic deities), who has
sadly been reduced in his golden years to perpetrating small-fry
scams and swindles. The new gods try to get Shadow on their side—
one of the most amusing scenes in the book finds the “boob tube . . .
the shrine the family gathers to adore” propositioning Shadow via a
renegade Lucille Ball in an old TV rerun. But Shadow sticks with his
eccentric pagan pals, for better or worse.

And what do the old gods have to say for themselves. Well, here is a
typical Odin rant, when Shadow asks him how he can justify stealing
ten dollars from an innocent woman: “They don’t sacrifice rams or
bulls to me. They don’t send me the souls of killers and slaves,
gallows-hung and raven-picked.
They made me. They forgot me. Now I
take a little back from them. Isn’t that fair?”

Gaiman delivers a distinctly American take on magical realism. If
Gabriel García Márquez can offer padres who levitate off the ground, if
Haruki Murakami can present talking cats, why can’t Gaiman attach his
fantasy to modern American pop culture? The odd angle here is that
Gaiman isn’t American—at least not by birth. He was born in
Portchester, England in 1960. But you would never guess it from
American Gods, which is every bit as American as Arnold
Schwarzenegger.

Almost anything can happen in Gaiman’s fanciful universe, and
invariably does if you wait long enough. As a result, there is a
charming, if occasionally frustrating, looseness to the storyline. Unlike,
say, the world of Harry Potter, where the reader has at least a rough-
and-ready notion of the magical powers various characters possess,
American Gods always leaves this ambiguous. Dead people can
apparently come back to life. The pagan deities at some points seem
powerful and scary, at other points enervated and pathetic. This
unpredictability creates a number of surprises in the storyline. On the
other hand, it prevents Gaiman from creating the type of suspense
that would result from a more tightly controlled premise. After all, why
should the reader worry about a character dying, if the deceased
might reappear in the next chapter?

But Gaiman compensates for the loose ends by adding lots of local
color to his narrative. He incorporates bits of low-end Americana into
the story—for example, setting a memorable gathering of the pagan
deities at The House on the Rock, a real life tourist attraction in Spring
Green, Wisconsin. Later he shifts the action to Lebanon, Kansas,
which is (in case you didn’t know) the geographical center of the
United States. Gaiman doesn’t need magic castles or pagan temples
to work his wonders. For him, the fantastic is very much at home in a
family diner or all-night gas station. This familiar veneer of the fanciful
is one of the most endearing qualities of Gaiman’s stories, and imparts
a piquant flavor to his imaginative works that one won't find in Narnia
or Middle-earth.

Along the way, readers of
American Gods get a double dose of
mythology. But don’t throw out your Joseph Campbell books quite yet.
Neil Gaiman isn’t interested in telling you the old myths and folk tales.
He wants to create some new ones of his own. And I can’t think of a
contemporary writer better suited for the job.
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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

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I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

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Like Water for Chocolate

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Lord of Light

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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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