American Gods posits an incredibly simple and incredibly complex idea: what if all of the settlers who ever arrived in America brought their gods along with them, and when they left, converted, died, or were killed, the gods were left behind? What is a god without worshippers? What is a god without sacrifices, temples, believers, and priests? And if human beings created the gods would our worship of TV, the internet, cars, sports, and credit cards create more gods? And how do these two kinds of gods, the old and the new, co-exist in one country and one time?
American Gods was published in 2001. It is a fantasy novel and a road novel. There are government spooks, small town cops, a murder mystery, a zombie, all manner of gods, trolls, dwarves and the like, and at its heart an ex-con who is vastly important but doesn’t know why.
The ex-con, and our hero, Shadow begins the book being released from jail after the sudden death of his wife. En-route to the funeral he meets a man, Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job. There is some pushback but eventually Shadow takes the job and travels with Wednesday as he recruits a ragtag group of the old gods to help him in his war with the new gods.
The plot seems simple but is in fact vast and sprawling. American Gods (the original, not the author’s preferred text) is 465 pages long. It is densely detailed and slow-paced. Yet, also, it isn’t. There are vast stretches of this book where nothing seems to happen. Shadow will arrive in a town and hang around. First it is in Kayro with the Egyptian gods and next when he is hidden in Lakeside, living under an assumed name. The Lakeside stuff is incredible in the sense that on the surface we just get Shadow (and Gaiman) killing time until the next stage of the plot, but actually, as we find out, it’s all relevant. And this applies to every part of the book. There are no throwaway lines or actions. Everything comes back around. Gaiman’s skill, and the con he sells us on, is to make the book seem sprawling and verbose for the sake of it with a casual regard for pacing and plot, when actually the whole thing is meticulously working like the innards of a watch. Everything links to everything else, which makes re-reading this book an absolute treat as you see the clues for why the kids are going missing in Lakeside, and who Shadow’s father is, and who the absolute villain is, laid out in front of you, hidden behind this relaxed tone, reminiscent of a campfire story.
The book is full of cons. Shadow is adept at coin tricks and their reliance on misdirection, Mr. Wednesday has made his money and survived through elaborate cons (the sequence with the ‘bank heist’ is incredible), the villain is hiding in plain sight (or rather the villains are), and the eventual climax Gaiman has been building to is itself an elaborate con game. I only really saw the extent of this deception on my second read as Gaiman is a master of giving you one thing while actually delivering something else.
As well as cons, this is really a book about America; the idea that America is the sum of its parts but that it is also fifty different countries masquerading as one. It is a story about immigrants, both immortal and mortal. It is a story about the people who, over the course of the history of the human race, got on a boat, were put on a boat, or walked to this vast foreign land. And when they got there, they thanked their gods, or cursed their gods, or simply brought their gods, and then they lived, died, were enslaved, sought freedom, settled, and worshipped. Throughout the book there are the coming to America vignettes which tell short stories concerning how different races and cultures came to America and how they brought their gods with them. The stories, featuring slaves, Vikings, a tribe that worships a giant mammoth head, are all fascinating and rich with Gaiman’s tall tale telling style. They don’t really tie into the main plot but rather enhance it. We get to see the bloody circumstances that brought the Norse gods to America, and though we don’t need to know it, it’s enlightening to see that Odin, Thor, and Loki are in America because a bunch of drunk Vikings hung a native American from a tree and were subsequently massacred for it. They also provide a nice break from the action for something wild and fantastical away from some of the more grounded elements of the book proper. Along with the coming to America vignettes, we get the somewhere in America vignettes, which show old gods in the modern world and how they’re coping. These characters come back around into the main plot, sometimes to be killed off in a single line of dialogue or to join the main action, and these vignettes paint a picture for us of life as a god in a country that isn’t good for gods.
Finally, this is a cold book. It is like an ode to winter. Cold permeates the pages and chills the reader’s bones. There is something wonderful about reading about the cold when you’re warm at home. This reviewer has always been a fan of books about cold and is a lover of Dan Simmon’s ice-bound The Terror and the Wall sections of the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Gaiman has a skill for writing winter as though any second the book is going to freeze in your hands and snow will fall from your living room ceiling. And even that is relevant to the whole plot. It seems like window dressing to have the book set in winter and yet it pays off over and over with the freezing death of a character, Shadow’s crucial meeting of Chad Mulligan while walking in the snow, and the secret of the clunker.
Overall, this is my favourite book. I had forgotten it was but re-reading it for this review and it’s fifteenth anniversary reminded me why I had devoured it over and over when I first bought it. The book is like having an old friend pop round for a cuppa and they begin to tell you a long sprawling story full of gods, wonders, and baddies. A story with so many wonderful characters like Sam Black Crow, Mr. Nancy, Whiskey Jack, the Kayro funeral home gang, the three Zorya sisters and Mad Sweeney. A story that is one thing and another at the same time. A road trip story and a story about what it means to leave your home and go far away. A picaresque adventure and a book about being betrayed by people you think you can trust. A story about gods and a story about people. And, in the end, all of these stories in one, and wonderful story at that.
Featured Image: Starz