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St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 6/24/2001, F. 9
IT’S OLD GODS VS. NEW GODS IN STORY THAT’S MORE THAN JUST AN ALLEGORY
J. Stephen Bolhafner
America is not a good land for gods. Forgotten and abandoned by their followers, they eke out an existence on the fringes of society, driving taxicabs, pulling con jobs, running mortuaries. That’s Neil Gaiman’s vision of America, anyway, where a place of power does not become a temple or cathedral, but a roadside attraction.
Mr. Ibis, a mortician in Southern Illinois, claims people have forgotten the origin of the region’s nickname, Little Egypt. He was worshipped as a god by Egyptians who came up the Mississippi thousands of years ago to trade with the “natives” – who of course brought their own gods when they came even earlier.
“This country has been Grand Central Station for 10,000 years or more,” says Mr. Ibis. And what about Columbus? “Columbus did what people had been doing for thousands of years. There’s nothing special about coming to America.”
The various gods are mostly seen through the eyes of Shadow, a man we know only by nickname, who is released from prison near the beginning of the novel. He goes to work for Mr. Wednesday, whose real identity the astute reader will immediately realize, though it takes Shadow most of the book to discover (“Well, seeing that today certainly is my day,” he says when they meet, “why don’t you call me Mr. Wednesday?”). Shadow isn’t stupid, but his education consists largely of a copy of Herodotus’ “Histories” that a former cellmate gave him. He learns a lot working for Mr. Wednesday.
Wednesday is trying to gather up the old gods to wage war against the new gods, characters such as Media and Television and a fat kid who rides in the back of a limousine leaking silicon chips. But the old gods are tired. They just want to be left alone. Besides, they figure the war is already over, and they lost. But Wednesday thinks a big, old-fashioned battle can still win the day.
It’s a fascinating tale that, like all the best fantasy novels, has an applicability to real life that is much more complex than simple allegory. It is by turns thoughtful, hilarious, disturbing, uplifting, horrifying and enjoyable – and sometimes all at once, in a curious sort of way. Those who are familiar with Gaiman’s earlier work will find a satisfying yarn by a familiar master storyteller. Those who are meeting him for the first time may be surprised at just how good he is.