Eisenthal, Bram, “Gods in the U.S.A.: Polytheism makes a comeback to take on the deities of technology in the fourth and best novel of a much-admired comic-book writer”, National Post, 30 June 2001, B12.
AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman
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British-born writer Neil Gaiman has made a career out of ushering readers into fantastic, often horrific alternative universes. In his twenties, he enthralled comic-book aficionados when his Sandman title, which featured stunning covers by Dave McKean, became a runaway hit with DC’s mature-reader Vertigo imprint. Sandman’s title character was Dream or Morpheus, one of the Endless, a family that also consisted of Destiny, Desire, Despair, Delirium, Destruction and Death. They inhabited The Dreaming, from where Morpheus sent dreams out into our world. Gaiman and McKean wrapped Sandman after 75 issues, but it still earns praise and finds new followers through various graphic novel compilations.
Gaiman’s first book came out in 1997. The best-selling Neverwhere, which dealt with a macabre netherworld under the streets of London, was quickly picked up by the BBC as a miniseries, and an American feature film is in the works. Gaiman then wrote Stardust, an adult fairy tale, as well as an anthology, Smoke and Mirrors. Now 40, he has unveiled his fourth novel. It is by far his most intricate and intriguing work.
American Gods deals with the latter-day United States, in which people have forgotten the great gods of their ancestors. Our host on this journey is Shadow, a hulking young man who is about to be released from prison after serving a three-year sentence. He’s eager to get home to his wife, Laura, but is informed by the warden, hours before freedom, that she has died in a car crash. Devastated and demoralized, Shadow walks straight into a world where nothing is as it seems — or is very sane, for that matter.
Homeward-bound, Shadow encounters the mysterious Wednesday, who knows all about him, appears anywhere at will, has an insatiable lust for women and offers Shadow a job. He is to assist Wednesday unquestioningly. Together, they embark on a series of adventures in which Shadow meets a group of colourful characters, as unusual as any you would find through the looking glass. They share one impressive trait: All are ancient gods. Wednesday, one of the most powerful, it turns out, is gathering them together to prepare for a battle to the death against the latter-day gods of technology.
Meanwhile, Shadow must battle his personal demons, including the decomposing Laura. The deceased woman has taken to visiting her husband now and then, which has something to do with a magical coin that Shadow, an amateur prestidigitator, buried with her at her funeral. This is also a journey of discovery for Shadow, who knows little of his origins. What he eventually learns is revealing, moving and shocking. Like an adopted child who learns as an adult he is not who he appears to be, Shadow must adapt and so must we.
It was clear from his Sandman beginnings that Gaiman had a special knack for charming readers. It wasn’t comic-book banter, but literature, when he filled a page with prose. The same is true of his novels. His handling of Shadow, an Everyman sort of fellow, is as comedic and tragic as his portrayal of Wednesday, a great old god. Though it turns out that being godlike is no guarantee of happiness or survival, Gaiman’s qualities as a writer go a long way toward securing his chances of continuing success.
Make no mistake, Gaiman has become of the finest writers of fantastic literature anywhere and this is his best work to date. American Gods is a finely crafted melange of fantasy, suspense, humour and pathos. At times, it is truly chilling. Gaiman does horror exquisitely and, while this is not specifically a horror tale, there is enough here to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Gaiman has researched his lore superbly. The results will please those who enjoy an intelligent read and a tweaking of their imagination.
A particularly clever device is the use of sub-stories about various gods, a vein running though the book and establishing the reader’s emotional connection with them. Evidently, Gaiman cares about his subjects far too much to disrespect them. Nor should we — for gods’ sake.
Bram Eisenthal is a Montreal writer, publicist and lifelong horror aficionado.