American Gods Review – Scotsman

McGinty, Stephen, “Twilight of the dethroned gods”, The Scotsman, 28 July 2001, p.16

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, Headline, #9.99.

WHERE do the old gods go? When the incense has drifted heavenwards and dispersed, when the final human sacrifice has breathed his last, or when elderly followers rise from their knees, shrug their shoulders and move on, do the gods and goddesses die? Or do they simply sigh, pack up their icons and go out and find a real job?

Neil Gaiman knows the answer and anyone smart enough to pick up American Gods for their beach reading can soon find themselves in the company of the wildest set of dejected deities since God told the Jewish people to ditch the golden calf. A writer best known for his comic series, Sandman, and an early collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Gaiman has an imagination that thrums like a motor and his latest novel is a delicious road trip through the black heart of America.

When Shadow, a convict in the final days of his sentence, is warned about a coming storm, he has little idea of the hurricane into which he will be drawn. Recruited on the outside by a mysterious Mr Wednesday to act as bodyguard to the bearded, one-eyed grifter with a taste for mead and curious line in former colleagues, the pair set off on a mission to recruit yesterday’s gods.

“This country has been Grand Central Station for 10,000 years or more,” explains Mr Ibis, the former Egyptian god of the dead, now employed as a mortician in the South Illinois town of Thebes. While some gods like Thor chose to commit suicide, others adapted to their impoverished environment. We encounter Bilquis, the Middle Eastern goddess of love, working the streets of Hollywood; Anansi, the Spider God, is now a black man called Mr Nancy; and Mad Sweeney, the Irish folk hero, is a drunken down and out. The reason for their recruitment is Mr Wednesday’s idea of a final brawl against the modern gods of the internet, the credit card and the digital chip, but woe betide anyone who trusts him too far.

American Gods weaves round a country punctuated with pitstops from the past during which Gaiman chronicles the arrival of different gods carried over the sea by their believers. The result is a spellbinding tale of magic and wonder that should puncture the glass ceiling against which the author has had his nose pressed for so long, and unite him with a new generation of readers for whom comics remain the preserve of children.

Norman Mailer may have praised Gaiman’s graphic novels, but when working only with words the British writer can still conjure memorable images, a disturbing atmosphere and a vision of America that’s entirely fresh. A section of particular note explores the disappearance of children in a small town in Wisconsin, and carries the chill of more than winter through its pages.

Stephen King, Clive Barker and Peter Straub are the unholy trinity of contemporary dark fantasy. In American Gods Gaiman has demonstrated he is making an assault on their pedestal.