American Gods is a hard-to-classify book. Most consider it sci-fi or fantasy and the book has won Hugo and Nebula awards often given to books in these genres. Yet Gaiman himself described the book as “a thriller, and a murder mystery, and a romance, and a road trip” as well as a book about the immigrant experience.
Whatever this book is, and I think it could be argued to be all these things, I was enthralled. I don’t read many in this genre but numerous friends had talked about it so I decided to take the plunge.
The narrative begins with Shadow, the central character in the story, as he is about to get out of prison. He is released early because of the death of his wife Laura in an auto accident that occurred with a mutual friend with whom she was sexually involved at the moment of the accident. As he absorbs this news and his changed future, he meets up with “Wednesday” who wants to hire him as a personal assistant and driver. He’s given a gold coin, which he tosses on his wife’s grave, and because of this she becomes one of the walking dead, dogging his steps through the narrative, and rescuing him at several points including the climactic episodes of the story.
Eventually Shadow discovers that Wednesday is a god (Odin) and traveling about the country to mobilize other gods in a battle between the ancient gods that came to America with the various immigrant peoples and the modern, high tech, material gods of the culture. None of the ancient gods seem particularly noble and Wednesday makes his way through petty “grifting” where he tricks people out of their money. Much of the first half of the narrative is a series of roadtrips around Midwestern America, and a few other locations, enlisting the gods in the coming battle. Eventually, Shadow is hidden away under the name Mike Ainsel in an idyllic community in northern Wisconsin by the name of Lakeside, idyllic except for the fact that a child goes missing from the town every year and is never found.
Part of the reason Shadow is hidden away is that we discover that he is considered important to both factions of this war for a reason he does not understand. Laura rescues him from one attempt of the moderns to seize him. Eventually he is arrested and then rescued as war clouds gather. Wednesday is killed and Shadow fulfills a commitment to keep vigil over his body even though it means his probable death. Action moves between physical reality, dream sequences, and the “backstage” reality as events move toward the climactic battle in a tourist location, Rock City (a real place).
This is definitely an “adult” book in terms of violence and sexuality. Unless there is more to such books than this, I’m not terribly interested. There was to this book. It explores the American landscape and the replacement of the spirituality of the various immigrants to the country with gods of technology, machines, media (one god bears this name) and more. It also explores the dark realities that often lurk behind our ideals and idyllic representations of American life–sordid and violent realities that belie the image we would project of ourselves.
Most fascinating to me was the character of Shadow. Gaiman only references Christianity in passing in an overt sense yet Shadow is one of the most striking “Christ figures” I’ve come across in contemporary literature. He is central to the conflict and yet hidden. He has a surprising identity (which I won’t give away). He embraces motifs of death and sacrifice (he is in fact hung on a tree at one point) and a mediatorial role on which everything comes to hinge in the plot.
This is definitely a “long read”. The edition I read 12,000 words longer than earlier editions and the author’s preferred edition. I could be wrong, but I think this work will be around for some time as an exploration of the American mythos and part of our cultural parlance. Not bad for the work of a U.K citizen, as Gaiman is!