Alden, John R., “Fantasized view of life in U.S. is first-rate”, Plain Dealer, 22 July 2001, I9.
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, William Morrow, 465 pp., $26
Foreigners who visit the United States are often struck by things we natives ignore. They notice the cookie-cutter franchises, the reptile farms, the signs that list a small town’s population and announce past high school championships. To us these are routine, but for outsiders they are keys to our country’s soul.
Similarly, writers of fantasy and fable find magic behind things the rest of us simply accept. Are victims of the pigeon drop greedy and stupid, or were they bedazzled by supernatural trickery? Do people obsess about celebrities because their own lives are dull, or are they worshipping new, true, deities?
Neil Gaiman is both foreigner and fantasist, so it is hardly surprising when he suggests the actions of gods, both old and new, might explain a lot about America. Readers who dismiss such notions with a snort will find little to enjoy in Gaiman’s tale. But those with a taste for the fantastic, or who are at least willing to accept fantasy as a downscale version of magical realism, will find this modern-day “Pilgrim’s Progress” immensely rewarding.
“American Gods” tells the story of Shadow, an ex-con who finds himself hired by a grifter called Wednesday – who turns out to be a god. Wednesday is the incarnation of Wotan, or Odin, but he’s aging, decrepit, weak. Like all the other old-world gods abandoned in America, who have lost the power bestowed through belief, Wednesday’s been left to scrape along.
Americans have adopted new gods, gods “of plastic and of beeper and of neon.” They worship gods such as Technology and Media, and make sacrifices to car gods “with blood on their black gloves and on their chrome teeth.” Yet despite all their power, these new gods hate their ancient competitors and want them gone.
Gaiman, who created the “Sandman” series, got his start writing comics, and “American Gods” is suffused with the episodic plotting, powerful imagery and deftly painted characters that distinguish that under-appreciated medium. The struggle between old gods and new provides a sturdy philosophical underpinning for his story, and Gaiman is a superb storyteller. Still, the greatest appeal of this fine novel comes from tracking the progress of Shadow’s journey.
Like Christian, the “pilgrim” in John Bunyan’s allegory of religious belief in America, Shadow suffers much along his way. He is beaten and betrayed, abused by authority and punished unjustly for the sins and shortcomings of others. An ex-con of uncertain race, Shadow sees our country at its best and its bleakest. He is rescued by a caring cop in a small Wisconsin town and endures a late winter landscape, “the cheerless gray of lonesome clouds, empty windows and lost hearts.” By the end of his journey, however, he and we have both gained a clearer understanding of America and our American gods.
Today, a young woman tells Shadow, “It’s easier to believe in aliens than in gods.” Still, malignant gods may be as good an explanation as any for phenomena such as serial killers or the desolate pictures of missing children taped on expressway tollbooths and rest-area bulletin boards. Yes, “American Gods” is fantasy. But behind that label, venturesome readers will find a finely crafted novel of weight and significance. They will find poetic descriptions, sharp-eyed criticism and first-rate storytelling. There in much to enjoy, to admire and to ponder in this unforgettable tale.
Alden is a critic in Ann Arbor, Mich.