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American Gods
by Neil Gaiman
(Headline, £6.99, 632 pages, paperback, March 2002.)

cover scanPeople believe in God (Allah, Buddha, whatever) because he exists, goes one argument. People believe in God, therefore he exists, goes a much more interesting one. Belief creates the thing believed in. But belief, of course, is a variable commodity. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Small Gods, the manifestation of the Great God Om goes from barely-noticed tortoise to big, scary, fire-and-brimstone vision in the sky because a lot of people suddenly, and all at the same time, start believing in him again. So the degree of power that the created gods are able to wield is exponentially related to the amount of belief being generated for consumption. The trick is that it has to be true belief -- just going to church (or temple or whatever) on a Sunday isn't enough. If people don't believe in you like they believe in death and taxes, then your godhood is stuffed.

It's a nifty idea, a witty subversion of both standard fantasy theologies and real world religion, and it was always crying out for a fuller and darker treatment. And in American Gods (not Big as opposed to Small, note, but American, which is a different thing altogether), that is exactly what Pratchett's friend and erstwhile collaborator Neil Gaiman has given it.

A man called Shadow is released from prison a few days early because his wife and his best friend have died in a car accident. Diverted en route home, the ex-con ends up taking a job as errand boy for a mysterious old man called Wednesday. Wednesday, it turns out, is on a recruitment drive for a war between the old gods (of whom he may be one of the oldest) and the new, or rather between their American avatars. If the old gods can't get themselves together and into fighting order for the approaching storm, they're going to disappear for good.

Or so says Wednesday, and so Shadow goes along with it. But Shadow is more than he thinks he is, and in a very different way so is Wednesday. As the story unfolds, Shadow travels around America's otherworldly Midwest and discovers it to be a lot weirder -- and a lot bigger -- than he ever imagined. He meets everyone who has ever been anyone in the divine pantheon (with a few notable exceptions), along with a smattering of extraordinary mortals; gets in shed-loads of trouble; and winds up solving a murder mystery and saving the world (maybe, and not necessarily in that order).

American Gods is a gleefully sideways epic of apocalypse and redemption that is affectionately reminiscent of Gaiman's magnum opus Sandman (Shadow's dreams are a significant thread throughout Gods) and at the same time something entirely new. It's a theological-dark-urban-fantasy-gothic-horror-road-trip, with jokes -- sort of like On the Road only interesting and with a plot. In fact, in sub-sub-genre terms, it may, in some obscure way, be the only book of its kind (though not being John Clute, I can't be completely sure).

Like almost anything Gaiman does, Gods is bursting at the seams with layers and folds of meaning, tricks, conundrums, pan-pop-cultural referentiality, and characters that have a tendency to spill into your life, take the book out of your hands, and beat you around the heart with it. In other words, it's a book about far too many things to cover in one review.

For instance, it's about three, and the power of it (and this has nothing to do with TV witches...). Shadow is serving a three-year sentence for aggravated assault on his two fellow armed robbers. He gets released three days early, on the third day of the week, because of the tragic consequences of a love triangle of which he was, unwittingly, the third apex. He seals his contract with Wednesday with three drinks. He finds himself on the road with Wednesday and another two cranky old men, one of whom has three sisters… The permutations are endless, and endlessly inventive, and so well hidden in Gaiman's fluid prose that you don't stop to consider how, just maybe, you're being set up from word one.

It's also a book about names, and how no name is unique, and how every name carries its own cargo of aggregated meanings and associations. Shadow's surname is Moon, though you never get to see the two words as close to each other as that. But stick 'Shadow Moon' into a Google search and you'll get a warehouse full of clues and referents and red herrings to pore over and bring back to your reading. Shadow's dead wife, who retains a disturbing habit of walking and talking for most of the book, is called Laura, and her name, descriptions, and dead/alive dilemma ping echoes galore off sub-iconic cultural emblems like Otto Preminger's Laura and The Eyes of Laura Mars. Wednesday as a name is redolent with possible meanings, as quickly becomes clear, and there's one spectacularly obvious plot-point naming pun that Gaiman manages to hide in plain sight for most of the story, which is quite a feat. And of course, even the words 'Neil Gaiman' on the cover are an indispensable part of the spell that makes the book work. But that's marketing, and we don't want to go there.

Most of all, though, it's a book about gods, specifically American gods, and exactly what it means when gods become American -- not just what it means for them, and for America, but for all of us, because (famously) we're all Americans now. The way Gaiman tells it, the old gods came to America -- that continental sponge for humanity -- over the course of centuries, riding in the heads and hearts and loins of nomads crossing the Ice Age land-bridge from Asia, of Vikings on their bloody expeditionary trawls across the Atlantic (whence Wednesday), of slaves kidnapped from their tropical kingdoms and sold into Hell.

Interludes between chapters tell us this older story of settlement and displacement and diaspora, sometimes as biography, sometimes as mythic history, but most engagingly through the cultured pen of Mr Ibis, chronicler, funeral director, briefly Shadow's employer-by-proxy, and subsistence-level Egyptian deity now settled in Cairo, Illinois.

These interludes could be annoying but somehow never are, not even the long ones, mainly because they're just so stuffed full of clever and beautiful and disturbing ideas about why the world is the way it is. For instance, but for one nomad woman's faithlessness fourteen centuries before humans invented a son for God, America would never have suffered the white man and would have belonged to its first natives for eternity. But for the everyday wishing of ordinary people to be ordinarily and consensually good, a mustachioed tyrant may not have gained ascension. This is the kind of stuff that challenges and changes your worldview, and puts to the sword a vast amount of half-arsed intellectual historicizing.

The new gods are far more obviously man-made, and far more inescapably American. There is Media, goddess of television, who comes to Shadow on the idiot-box in the form of Lucille Ball and offers to show him her breasts even when Desi Arnaz is in the room. There is Technical Boy, geek divine, who rides around in a stretch limo spouting Superhighway rhetoric to anyone who'll listen and anyone who won't. And, somewhat inevitably, there is the Agency, a bunch of black hats with names like Mr Town and Mr Stone who run non-stop blacked-out trains across a secret nationwide rail network and exist purely because enough people assume they must do.

American Gods has its flaws -- there are a fair few chunks of mechanical get-hero-from-A-to-B stuff, some lazy repetition of words within sentences, and Gaiman lets himself play authorial god a tad too often for it just to be a clever riff on his themes. But the flaws are not big or plentiful enough to mar the book out of the modern masterpiece class. The plot is a piece of spring-loaded craftsmanship, there's not a single boring character in sight, nearly as many laugh-out-loud jokes as a Discworld novel, and enough passages of sheer gorgeousness (like Mr Jacquel's first dissection, Sam's rant in the car, Shadow's arboreal vigil) to gainsay any slack-brained genre snob who calls you out on your reading tastes.

Some reviewers have pointed out, somewhat snippily, the lack of Greek gods and the rather notable absence of, well, God and Jesus and so on. They're missing the point. Gaiman's principal divine family is just a Nordic variation on a theme -- there's a big daddy god, a troublesome son god, time spent on trees, and enough three-days and multiples-of-three-days references to bludgeon a TV evangelist into atheism. It's just Gaiman's choice, and the oddness of the choice is used deliberately to highlight (or shadow) the other variations.

Besides, Gaiman's one bald reference to Christianity -- Mr Ibis telling Shadow that 'Jesus does rather well over here' -- is in many ways at the heart of American Gods, and is, brilliantly, all that needs to be directly said on the matter. Little enough that it won't alienate a large chunk of the American book-buying public, and more than enough for any engaged reader to see exactly what Gaiman is saying with the whole immense weave of his story. That gods reflect the manner in which they are believed in, which may not be the original manner; and that they do so because, as far as the things that actually matter are concerned, gods are unmistakably, irrevocably, and terribly human.

Review by Robert Guy Cook
See also: Lou Anders' alternative review of American Gods.

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© Robert Guy Cook 7 September 2002