The bookmark I’ve been using to keep my place in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a page from the 2001 Mensa Puzzle Calendar. The page is Tuesday, 10 July 2001. This may or may not be the day I originally began reading the book, but it’s probably pretty close. The book was first published in 2001, and I’ve got the hardcoverHardcover books are a pain in the ass to read, especially in bed. After a while, my arms, hands and fingers get tired of holding up the book, so I rarely read more than ten or twenty pages of hardcovers when I’m in bed (I don’t like to read on my stomach). I know the hardcovers look nice on a shelf and all, but paperbacks are simply more convenient. They’re also easier to carry around.. I suppose you could say that I averaged about a hundred and ten pages a year on American Gods, but that would be an oversimplification.
See, I’ve got BADD. I’ll pick up a book today, read fifty pages or so, then buy another book tomorrow and temporarily abandon the old in favor of the new. As a result, my rate of finishing books is pretty sad. At any one time, I’m partway through at least a half-dozen books, if not more.
Sometimes, I can pick up a book I haven’t finished and dive right in where I left off a couple months (or years) ago. Other times, I have to back up a bit, or start all over again. That’s what I did with American Gods a few weeks ago. I picked it up and started from the very beginning.
This afternoon, eating cold lasagna and garlic breadsticks on my lunch hour, I finished the book. I feel inordinately accomplished right now. Not because American Gods was difficult or unpleasant to read, mind you. It’s just that I so rarely complete a book without allowing myself to be distracted by another that when it happens I want to celebrate. Buying The Once and Future King last weekend could very easily have led to the derailment of my Gaiman train”[M]y Gaiman train” is a very suspect phrase. Don’t think about it too much., but it didn’t.
The basic conceit of American Gods is this: as people from far-flung lands emigrated to America in days gone by, they brought their gods (or rather, a copy of their gods), with them. As the great Melting Pot heated up and different cultures blended together, the old gods and their mythology were forgotten. The manifestations of these gods grew bitter as the rites and sacrifices that made them powerful faded into memory and the people of America created new gods of their own, gods of media and technology.
Now, a storm is coming. The gods, old and new, are gathering their numbers to face one another in a great war. The mysterious Mister Wednesday hires an ex-convict named Shadow to aid him in recruiting some of the old gods, and thus begins Shadow’s travels to and from the places of power in America and his encounters with gods, leprechauns, piskies, and a host of other figures from a host of mythologies.
American Gods is dense with strange and wondrous places—from roadside attractions like The House on the Rock to the idyllic little town of Lakeside, Wisconsin—populated with an array of gods, both familiar and foreign. Despite this, the world Gaiman creates seems hollow at times. His descriptions of settings seem to lack detail in some cases, giving the impression of a rough hand-drawing that was never inked or colored. There is also a distinct lack of incidental characters. In motion picture terms, it seems like the director forgot to hire extras to fill the empty seats of the diner where the main characters eat their breakfast.
As a result, when the “real world” is left behind while Shadow walks along the unseen paths travelled by the gods or finds himself moving through a strange dreamscape, the disconnect from reality is incomplete. The world he normally occupies seems so often surreal that these fantastic side trips seem a little less so.
Still, there are times—such as certain moments when Shadow is in Lakeside—when the world seems truly alive and full, and the reader is fully immersed in the richness of the setting. Perhaps Gaiman is painting a more detailed picture with his words, or perhaps the character interactions somehow make the scene more clear. I’m not sure which it is without going back to re-read several chapters.
That hollowness is my only major gripe with American Gods. I found the idea that these gods-made-flesh were walking among us and simply trying to get by in a land where no one prayed, offered sacrifices to or even remembered them to be fascinating. They lead a dull existence, often caught in a monotonous routine, but when Shadow and Wednesday arrive we see glimpses of their former glory that show us just how far they’ve fallen since the days when someone believed in them.
Shadow wanders in a world that doesn’t quite seem like his home. He has lost everything that was important to him and at first he follows Wednesday simply because it’s what he agreed to do. Soon, he finds that he wants some of what has been taken away from him back and seeks to find a way to regain it. The cause seems hopeless, but he pursues it nonetheless. As he pursues his own goal and does the bidding of Mister Wednesday, he eventually learns that his part in the war between old gods and new is much, much more important than he could have guessed.
Shadow is as defined and mysterious as his namesake. On the surface, his motives are simple and clear, his sense of duty and devotion unflagging, yet what truly drives him, what keeps him going when there seems little point in continuing is a slippery eel to catch. He is at once powerful and powerless, engaging and empty, always sympathetic, never cruel. He does what he does because he said he would, yet there is more to the man than simple, mindless persistence. On the surface, Shadow may look like the stereotypical dim-witted muscle, but he’s never anywhere near as dumb as anyone thinks he is.
American Gods turned out to be every bit as good as I thought it would be, and well worth taking the time to read. From start to finish, it is a satisfying story with a few shortcomings that are easy enough to forgive. It’s a book I’d like to read again when I have time to look up each and every location and character and learn more about the role they play and who it was that made them important in their day.