Horgan, Candace, Strange deities roam U.S. landscape, Denver Post, 22 July 2001, F.08.
What would you do if Odin, the head deity in the Norse pantheon of gods, showed up one day and, over dinner, offered you a job with a 7-foot-tall leprechaun? So begins the latest work from English fantasy/horror writer Neil Gaiman. Titled ‘American Gods,’ Gaiman mines the work of several earlier authors, including Lord Dunsaney, Roger Zelazny and James Branch Cabell, in creating a contemporary fantasy where a god’s power is proportional to the amount of belief people give him.
When a god’s believers die or lose belief, a god dies. New gods and goddesses continually rise as old ones die due to neglect.
Gaiman centers his novel on Shadow, a man released from prison after serving three years for assault. On the plane ride home, Shadow’s coach seat is taken, and he is moved to first class, where he sits next to a man calling himself Wednesday. Wednesday mysteriously knows several of the details of Shadow’s life, and offers him a job, much to Shadow’s consternation. Shadow, after trying to escape from Wednesday, eventually takes the job, and finds out that this ability to know details about a person’s life is only the beginning of Wednesday’s talents.
Gaiman, an expatriate Englishman living in Minneapolis, has great fun playing with American concepts of the sacred. Christianity is a majority religion in America, but Jacquel, aka Anubis of the Egyptian pantheon, observes to Shadow, ‘Jesus does pretty good over here. But I met a guy who said he saw him hitchhiking by the side of the road in Afghanistan and nobody was stopping to give him a ride. You know? It all depends on where you are.’ Later, Shadow meets Eostre, the goddess of the dawn, who is unhappy because although the Easter day celebration continues, most people have forgotten that the ceremony was an old pagan rite in her honor that predates Christianity.
In addition, if one accepts the premise that belief is what gives a god or goddess power, then there are going to be some strange deities wandering the American landscape. In the course of his journeys with Wednesday, Shadow meets some of the new gods of America, like the goddess Media, the god Technology and the gods Credit and Television.
In Gaiman’s world, there is a limited amount of belief to go around, and the gods and goddesses end up fighting each other for it, much as people might fight over food during a famine. The new gods are afraid of the capricious shifts in belief that greatly diminished prior gods in the American landscape, such as the gods of Railroad. The modern gods ally themselves to try to wipe out the older pantheon and free up more belief for them to feed on.
The Automobile gods in particular are frightening. Gaiman writes of them, ‘They were a powerful, serious-faced contingent, with blood on their black gloves and on their chrome teeth: recipients of human sacrifice on a scale undreamed-of since the Aztecs.’ A gruesome, yet accurate way to portray America’s love affair with the automobile.
As the potential war looms closer, Shadow finds himself increasingly a target. There is a highly amusing sequence when the god of Television tries to get Shadow to come to the other side and betray Wednesday, whom the TV god explains ‘isn’t even yesterday anymore.’ Shadow eventually is moved to a small town to hide until Wednesday needs him, but even his dreams are loud enough to be heard by the immortals and attract their attention, much to Wednesday’s annoyance. No one can figure out exactly why Shadow is so important, but he becomes a focal point for all the immortals.
Gaiman keeps throwing surprises at the reader throughout the book. Just when you think you’ve figured out what’s going on, he twists everything around. If you are familiar with some of the different worldwide mythological traditions, it is great fun to try to figure out who the different gods and goddesses are as Wednesday travels around with Shadow, trying to enlist their help in the war against the new pantheon.
Candace Horgan is a Denver-based freelance writer.