Kaveney, Roz, “Gods and monsters in the trailer park”,The Independent – London, 18 July 2001, p. 5
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman (Headline, #17.99)
AMERICA IS a country of the mind as well as the political entity known as the United States. It has no border posts, but incomers have to make their own accommodation to the ways they do things there. The sly wit and erudition of every other sentence of American Gods reminds us that Neil Gaiman is a very English writer, but this story of how various gods and other entities came to America also implies the story of his loving being there.
This is a fantastic novel, as obsessed with the minutiae of life on the road as it is with a catalogue of doomed and half-forgotten deities. In the course of the protagonist Shadow’s adventures as the bodyguard and fixer of the one-eyed Mr Wednesday, he visits a famous museum of junk and the motel at the centre of the US, as well as eating more sorts of good and bad diner food than one wants especially to think about.
Shadow is out of jail a day early because his wife and his best friend died in a car crash – in circumstances that make it ironically clear how little he understood his life. His relationship with his wife Laurel is one of the strongest things in the book; undead, she haunts him, insisting on working on their flawed, loving relationship and exhibiting a fatal callousness towards those of the living she sees as a threat to him. Perceived by everyone as the race they are not, endlessly manipulating coins to keep himself from thinking too deeply, Shadow is an attractive hero, all the more so because he finds himself a loyalty and sticks to it beyond death.
Wednesday, as the moderately informed reader works out several pages before we are explicitly told, Odin, the gallows-god; reduced to the status of a petty con artist and determined to be pushed no further. America is full of old gods, brought there by their worshippers – and the new gods of technology are jealous even of the space they occupy in poverty and retirement. There is a war on, a war of menace and casual assassination. Shadow takes the first job he is offered after leaving jail, and it becomes a crusade.
Many of the incidental pleasures here come from the casual portraits of gods down on their luck. This is a wistful book rather than a comical one, but there is a lot of wit in Gaiman’s sense of how the once-worshipped cope. What we see of the new gods is equally intelligent; the murderous Russian god of evil Czernobog meets the cliche-obsessed Media and asks his companions: “`Isn’t she the one who killed her children?’ `Different woman,’ said Mr Nancy. `Same deal.'”
This patness sometimes risks everything – but there is illumination as well as snappy one-liners. Gaiman’s jokes have the same metaphysical bite as those of unfashionable writers he admires, like GK Chesterton and James Branch Cabell.
American Gods has an attractive complexity. We have Shadow’s adventures on the road, but also his weeks in a small snow-bound town which would be perfect were it not for the yearly disappearance of adolescents, and the happy days he spends with two Egyptian deities who have bowed to the necessity of their condition and gone into the funeral business. It is Mr Ibis, the courtly old man who is also the bird-headed Thoth, who narrates many of the inset tales: Vikings sacrifice the first American they see and come to no good end; a transported Cornishwoman leaves out milk for the pixies; mammoth-worshipping hunters bring their skull-idol with them across the straits.
One of Gaiman’s early scripts for a graphic novel featured a man cursed with too many good ideas; the joke was that, in order to convince us, he had to give his character a wealth of story fragments that were good enough to convince us.
Gaiman still has the prodigality that characterised not only that episode, but all of his Sandman series of graphic novels. When he brings it to prose fiction, he also disciplines and controls it. Part of the joy of American Gods is that its inventions all find a place in a well-organised structure. The book runs as precisely as clockwork, but reads as smoothly as silk or warm chocolate.