Summer, like books, offers the opportunity to escape from the increasingly horrifying reality of what we witness in our daily news dose. Getting lost in a good book (or movie, depending on which part of this site you like to visit the most) is a small favor that we can grant ourselves during the summer and getting so lost that you have to remember to pull yourself away, to go to work, to go to bed, to finish the laundry…
Well, that’s a special treat altogether.
To find a book that engrossing that you forget where you are altogether is a rare pleasure that doesn’t always happen, but when it does, you know you have found something special.
Welcome to the worlds created by Neil Gaiman.
Specifically, we are talking about American Gods. Written in 2001, before he was quite the household name he is today, American Gods was recently adapted, with the help of Gaiman himself, into a series for Starz. The show, as I have seen so far, is spectacular and true to the book in ways that few screen adaptations are. Due to the collaboration with Neil Gaiman himself, this adaptation has proven to be what many of its readers had long hoped it could be.
But we aren’t here to talk about the show. Kevin has that covered in detail in his own reviews.
No, we are here to talk about the book that show sprang from.
My own copy came in at a comforting seven hundred and fifty pages and this book feels like you are holding a universe in your hand. One that is, ultimately, unknowable, alien, frightening, and frankly, beautiful. American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s most celebrated work to date and it’s easy to see why. If I hadn’t known otherwise, I would have mistaken Gaiman for being born in America, for having made multiple cross country trips, and having known the American landscape from his own roots.
While Gaiman has made trips across the country, he was born in the United Kingdom. However, the imagery and language he uses with such delicate charm entices the reader to think that he was born in America, having soaked in the Americana genre from birth to eventually shows its many citizens the truth that Mr. Wednesday states: “This is the only country in the world,” said Wednesday, into the stillness, “that worries about what it is.”
American Gods cannot be easily classified into a specific genre and that is probably why it is so loved across the board. A mix of fantasy, horror, Americana and mythology, the book breaks down genre barriers while making a genre all its own where it reigns over the other books like a disgruntled king.
We are introduced to the improbably named Shadow Moon, our protagonist, with whose vision we watch the story unfold. Shadow is in prison for armed robbery and has only days left in his sentence before he can finally leave and be reunited with his loving wife. Puppy, Laura Moon calls him, but only ironically. Shadow Moon is a huge man, terrifying in height and weight and attitude, though through his prison sentence he has kept to himself and kept his head down. An unforeseen accident happens and leaves Shadow bereft and aimless, until he meets the roguish Mr. Wednesday and reluctantly agrees to work for him. Mr. Wednesday is not what he seems and at times, is less than what he appears. He’s a con artist, a war general, a father, and an old god. Mr. Wednesday (the kicker, like almost everything else in this book, is in the name) is not the only god living in America. There are many, according to the book, that are living among us, gathering what few worshippers they have to extend their long lives; because, after all, what are gods without worshippers?
Dead, if Mr. Wednesday is to be believed.
So the war is set and the storm is coming, as we are told. It is the old gods vs the new; Mr. Wednesday and Shadow with their unlikely allies vs the The Technical Boy and Media, new and eager gods set to devour the world for their own reasons.
Gaiman is able to create a rich tapestry, woven together from pieces and fragments of cultures brought to America so long ago. As a country made up of settlements by a number of the world’s cultures, America is the only setting for this story. The reader is left with the questions, What if, with each fresh round of immigrants, their own gods took up home here and created a place for themselves, only to be forgotten by America’s ever evolving culture and technology? What happens to the old cultures and customs? Do they breathe their last? Do they go quietly into the night, as the poem goes?
Or, do they rage against the dying of the light?
Here Gaiman creates the storm in a way that no one else could. With the worshippers firmly on the sides of technology, credit cards, the internet, and all the instant gratification one could want, what do the old gods have to fight with? Without their worshippers and their worshipper’s faith, the old gods are nothing. The new gods have decided that it is time for the old gods to go.
As with the show, the book does not shy away from the gore that a plot like this implies. There is horror here, to be sure. It is also, in turns, cold and alienating and heartbreaking, but it is also not without humor and joy and hope, creating the formula that made Neil Gaiman into one of our most celebrated and loved contemporary authors.