Squitieri, Tom, “Imagination runs wild New twist on religion is seen in ‘Gods'”, USA Today, 12 July 2001, D.04
American Gods by Neil Gaiman, William Morrow, 465 pp., $26
American Gods is strewn with secrets and magical visions. They cast a spell over anyone who has wondered why the world never quite seems to be the way one thinks it should be. It is powerful and gripping, though its intensity at times can force a reader to stop and say “Whew!”
The book is the latest offering from Neil Gaiman, who has acquired a Goth-heavy cult following for his edgy science-fiction novels and his groundbreaking Sandman comic books. Gaiman’s third novel will probably please newcomers to his work while convincing many devoted followers that his creativity and craft are still razor-sharp. American Gods is pointed, occasionally comical, often scary, consistently moving and provocative.
The tale, on the surface, centers on Shadow Moon, who ends a three- year prison term a few days early — only to learn that his wife has been killed in an accident while frolicking with his best friend. He meets an hombre named Wednesday on the plane to the funeral and is offered a job as a bodyguard and right-hand man. But the surface is never where Gaiman’s books or characters really play. Shadow accepts the offer, and he and Wednesday embark on a strange, disturbing road trip that takes a sharp look at America today and whether its people have lost their moral and spiritual compass.
The questions are debated as a theme song to what becomes a battle between the “old gods” — those of the myths and lore that followed the European immigrants to the New World — and the newer gods, created by generations of Americans worshiping television, the Internet, Wall Street, beepers and convenience stores.
The new myths and the gods they spun are challenged by Wednesday and his friends (all are gods with once familiar names like Odin or Venus), who have been reduced to hiding out in fading roadside attractions and surviving in non-godlike jobs with second-rate sideshow games, or as prostitutes.
Shadow gets pulled into the war and ends up playing a crucial role in the battle. Before the book ends, he leads the reader and the gods old and new into an examination of life and death, self-image, spirituality and redemption.
One of Gaiman’s strengths is his ability to push and prod the reader’s imagination. Sometimes the book is a bumpy ride, with lurches and inconsistencies, much like the decrepit attractions at the sideshows where the gods lurk.
The constant reminders that “a storm is coming” is an unfortunate replication of the closing line of the first Terminator movie. But the psycho-spiritual hallucinogenic road trip remains a powerful, searing force that makes readers confront what is real and what is not so real underneath the visible surface of things.
Overall, being jolted into saying “Whew” every so often, as Shadow notes, is good for the soul.