Morel, D.J.,Englishman evokes small-town Midwest, The Seattle Times, 22 June 2001, H20
Neil Gaiman could have chosen New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles as the epicenter for his new novel, “American Gods.” The author who made the London sewer system famous in “Neverwhere” could have reveled in the meaty pickings offered by American urbanity. It seems almost unthinkable that the author of the infamous “Sandman” series of graphic novels could have resisted such a temptation.
But not Neil Gaiman. He chose Wisconsin.
“American Gods” (Morrow, $26) begins with Shadow–a convict who reads Herodotus, a drifter fond of coin tricks, a big guy prone to random acts of kindness. He is released from prison two days ahead of schedule so that he can attend his wife’s funeral. Out of prison for only a few hours, he meets Mr. Wednesday, a con man who offers him a job. Having just lost his wife and his best friend and the job they had lined up for him (all in the same car crash), Shadow accepts.
But a storm is brewing.
The gods of old–those that immigrants brought with them to this new land called America, only to cast aside–are lining up against a new set of gods, those of televisions and computers and cell phones. The old gods resemble, for the most part, rickety old men with warped senses of humor, whereas the new gods take the form of a pubescent kid in a limousine and a perfectly coifed newscaster. They all wander the land, hoping to be worshipped. And they are all worried. Fickle America is not a good place for gods.
As an Englishman who currently lives in Minneapolis, Gaiman writes as someone who both knows America well and as someone who has long observed it from a distance. He captures our media-saturated milieu, but also the underpinnings of what came before, the cultural heritage that forged our melting-pot culture. Rather than resorting to stock European claims that America has no history, or worse, has no culture, Gaiman digs deeper.
What do Americans worship? In “American Gods,” the holiest places are not temples or cathedrals or mosques, but places that are innately American: roadside attractions. They are featured throughout the book as places of spiritual power, each becoming a little more sacred as countless tourist feet pass through them each day.
For the most part, American cities appear only in brief interludes, in self-contained nuggets which hardly ever involve the central characters of the novel. But while these interludes are thoroughly engrossing in their own right, it is the American heartland that the novel most strongly evokes.
Gaiman is at his best when detailing Illinois and Wisconsin and Minnesota. He presents small-town American locales with an authenticity that is surprisingly lacking from other parts of the novel. The descriptions of mythical gods never achieve quite the same clarity. The penultimate battle scene glosses over many of its details. And overall, while the story starts strong and will pull in even the most jaded reader, it seems to lose direction along the way and ultimately end about 20 pages later than it really should.
As the man who got intellectuals to read comic books (reincarnated as “graphic novels”), Gaiman has continuously shown that he is not afraid to experiment. He has written an amazing variety of work: essays, short stories, television scripts, film translations, and even a wildly successful prose novel.
“American Gods” will undoubtedly only add to Gaiman’s growing reputation, although it is probably not the novel that will be forever associated with his authorial imprint. For the moment, that is “Neverwhere.” However, as Gaiman continues to explore new territory, the best may well be yet to come, although it probably won’t center on Wisconsin.
Neil Gaiman will read from “American Gods” at 4 p.m. Monday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park (206-366- 3333); and 7 p.m. Monday at Kane Hall at the University of Washington. Free tickets at University Book Store (206-634-3400).