We gave it a B
Remember the days when people believed in gods? When rolling thunder meant the angry rumbling of the hammer-throwing Thor? When a night of drunken revelry was dedicated to that wine-pouring party animal Bacchus? When folks went on vision quests, worshiped at shrines, and sacrificed virgins — you remember those days, don’t you?
Of course not. And this is a problem for the deities who populate Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the third novel from the author of the similarly fantastical Neverwhere and the ultra-erudite comic-book series Sandman. An Englishman living in Minnesota, Gaiman has applied his vast breadth of knowledge about all things mythological to a truly high concept: What if the immigrants who came to America brought their gods with them? And what if these old gods, weakened by increasing unbelief, are being forced into retirement by a petulant pantheon of homegrown divinities — gods of Media, Technology, Stone, Wood, and Town — who want the old fogies out of their offices ASAP? It’s a corporate takeover, and it’s hostile. Caught up in this clash of the titans is an ex-con named Shadow, a quiet, hulking man sent up for a robbery that went horribly wrong. On the eve of his release, Shadow learns his beloved wife, Laura, has been killed in a car crash. Suddenly, the only thing that kept him going is gone.
But divine intervention comes in the form of a one-eyed grifter named Wednesday — a.k.a. Odin, the high father of Norse mythology. Wednesday is traveling the country in hopes of rallying the old gods for a final rumble with the young punks. He needs a driver, and with nothing to live for and nothing better to do, Shadow takes the job.
Shadow’s journey gets very weird very quickly. A visit to Wisconsin’s The House on the Rock (it’s Gaiman’s clever contention that roadside attractions are America’s only remaining holy places) leads to a surreal slide into the collective unconscious. The goddess of Media tries to entice Shadow to her side by offering to make Lucille Ball strip. But what really rocks Shadow’s world is when his dead wife comes back in living-dead mode to serve as his guardian angel. Gaiman’s plot is but a series of episodic tangents — a part-time job in a mortuary run by Egyptian death gods; a sinister idyll in a snowbound town; a hallucinatory trip into the underworld and back — not unlike the wanderings of his Sandman story lines. In fact, American Gods could have easily been a graphic novel, and an illustrator’s rendered characterizations might have added some much needed nuance to Gaiman’s new gods. As they are, they come off as either silly (see Stone, Wood, and Town) or borne of cheap and easy social commentary (see Media and Technology).
Still, American Gods works because of Gaiman’s singular control over the proceedings, his nimble and intelligent voice, and his gift for painting spectacle and splashing big themes across his canvas. He really only stumbles at the end: Shadow — equal parts Jesus, Hercules, Orpheus, and Sir Gawain — saves the day with a Why can’t we be friends? speech that defines anticlimactic. Gaiman also seems to undercut the ingenuity of his core premise by acknowledging its logic flaws, particularly in a needless epilogue that reveals the link between immigrant gods and their native lands. Luckily, Gaiman’s stories are always overstuffed experiences, and American Gods has more than enough to earn its redemption, including a hero who deserves further adventures. American Gods is not unlike those epic tales of old: The joy is not in the destination, but in the telling. Gaiman’s old fans will find it familiar but formidable, new readers will find it provocative yet fun, and it bodes well for Gaiman’s future that he’s created a world where both can get along.