American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
You should congratulate me. I just got an e-reader. It's a Nook tablet, because what I really wanted to do was play games and watch movies, but it's nice to be able to read books too. My first download, my first read on the Nook, was Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Bottom line: good choice.
I've always been sort of a fan from afar of Gaiman. I read some of his comics and had a hard time understanding him. Then I read Neverwhere and found it stunning. I follow him on Twitter and enjoy his tweets. But it's been a while since I dipped my toe back into his literary pool. American Gods was a whim, but it fit pretty nicely into my recent reading and made me eager to read more of his work and genre. The conceit of the book is based on the reality that the United States of America is (if you set aside for a moment the native peoples who predate Europe's expansion into the new world) a nation of immigrants. All these people came from somewhere else, and the places they came from had their gods and legends and mythologies. Immigrants brought those gods with them, but time and dislocation have taken their toll on people's devotion, such that those transplanted gods are now forced to eke out a meager existence and scare up worship and sacrifice wherever they can find it.
The hero of the book, Shadow, knows none of this. He only knows that he's thisclose to being released from jail, a place he survived by keeping his nose clean and making a friend of his celly, Low Key Lyesmith. A tragedy secures Shadow an early release by a matter of days, and we discover that Shadow survives life by accepting the reality that he's presented with and doing what he feels is right and responsible from one moment to the next. That makes him a good lackey/understudy to Wednesday, an enigmatic and charismatic traveler he meets on the outside. Wednesday leads Shadow into the middle of a brewing war between the old, immigrant gods and the new breeds of the New World: gods of gadgetry and image and spectacle, gods that hardly earn the title but that pose a real threat to the gods of the ages.
We're meant to identify with Shadow, and if he weren't so endearingly adaptable and even keeled that would be nearly impossible: I'm a wee little man, raised on the easy life, whereas Shadow's had it hard his whole life. He's a big guy with good reason to be angry and lash out, and yet he never does. It's impressive, but hardly resonant. It becomes easier to identify with Shadow, however, when you go looking for someone else to identify with. They're all gods, it turns out (so, strike one); they're also all sort of sad and pathetic, and almost none of them approaches anything resembling nobility.
I understand Gaiman (and by extension his comics and even some of his tweets) a little better having read American Gods. He's a mystic and a mythologist, and the way he looks at the world and his underlying melancholy are in view throughout this book. Not that it hurts the storytelling; there were many times when I could not bring myself to stop reading--even though, because I was reading an ebook instead of a paperback, committing to another chapter could sometimes mean committing to another forty to fifty pages. But it's not just the epic that enthralled me; Gaiman tells a great story, but he also paints great scenes and portrays great characters. I did have a hard time keeping the pantheon straight, but that didn't matter as I pictured Easter, for example, the type of girl you'd do anything for and never take your eyes off of; or Czernobog, whose Eastern European accent rang in my ears even as I winced at the thought of his taking a sledgehammer to Shadow's/my head.
I learned a few things as I read, about mythology but also about technology, most notably that there's an outer limit to the number of characters from an ebook you can share on Twitter or Facebook. Gaiman offers lots of aphorisms cleverly contained in dialogue or circumspection or even simply narration. I highlighted a lot and wanted to share more than intellectual property laws and conventions apparently allow. So I guess you'll just have to read it for yourself--or, if you have a Nook, I could loan it to you, highlighting and all. Apparently you can do that sort of thing.
Every year I attend a retreat at which we circle up and share with one another our favorite book of the year. I always get a little anxious, because it's a room full of editors, and they are generally compelled by different genres than I am. But this year, when it comes to my turn to share, I will smile proudly and hold up my Nook tablet and click on the icon for American Gods. And I will tell them that it's my favorite book of the year and that they should read it. And I suppose here I'm telling you the very same thing.
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