Steelman, Ben, “Old World deities vie with TV for Americas soul”, Sunday Star-News, 26 August 2001, 1D, 8D
AMERICAN GODS, by Neil Gaiman, William Morrow, $26.
In the summer’s hottest new fantasy, Bilquis, the onetime queen of Sheba and an avatar of Isis/Ishtar/Astarte, is hitting the pavement as an L.A. hooker.
Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jackal (er, Jacquel), the master embalmers of Ancient Egypt’s pantheon, run a rundown mortuary in Cairo, Ill.
Czernabog, the Slavic god of death, retired as a butcher in a Chicago slaughterhouse.
And Wotan? Well, he’s up in Minnesota and Wisconsin, mostly, behaving much as he did in Wagner’s Ring operas.
The deities of the Old World followed their believers across the Atlantic, and according to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, they’re still around, often at roadside tourist attractions. (You’d be amazed who, or what, you can run into in Vegas.)
They’re facing competition, though from the gods of modern technology: From Television, the All-Seeing Eye (and its handmaiden, Saint Lucy Ricardo), from the Internet (personified as a pudgy techno- geek), from Media and those mysterious Men in Black.
And a showdown is rumbling.
It’s not exactly a new idea. The late Douglas Adams (A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) put the Old Gods in new clothing for his Long, Dark Tea-time of the Soul (1988).
Mr. Gaiman, however, fills out the concept, with Arabian Nights djinns driving taxis through Manhattan and ginger-haired leprechauns turning up on the next barstool, wearing obscene T-shirts. (Leprechauns, incidentally, are among the tallest of the faerie folk.)
An Englishman best known for scripting the Sandman comic books, Mr. Gaiman brings mordant, cyberpunkish wit to his mythologizing.
His hero, Shadow, a former fitness trainer, is just getting out of prison after three years, as the novel opens – only to learn that his wife, Laura, has just been killed in a car crash.
Like the Hollywood screen goddess from the 1944 thriller, though, this Laura won’t stay dead. Though Shadow watched her burial, she keeps popping up, in the well-embalmed flesh.
With nothing to do, Shadow drifts into employment with an overweight, aging drifter who calls himself Wednesday. (Check your dictionary: The name was derived from “Odin’s Day.”)
Exactly what he’s doing for his boss is hard to determine, even by Shadow, but it involves jawboning with beautiful women, getting beat up and interrogated on a regular basis and looking for mysteries without any clues, just like Sam Spade.
Meanwhile, the narrative flashes back and forward, to A.D. 813, to the 1700s, when indentured servants brought the banshees and the piskis from Ireland and Cornwall, and African slaves delivered Elegba, the voodoo lord.
As you might gather, American Gods is a little denser than, say Dungeons & Dragons.
Besides introducing arcane divinities from Russian, gypsy and even Hindu folklore, Mr. Gaiman throws in enough allusions to T.S. Eliot, Julian of Norwich, G.K. Chesterton (see: The Man Who Was Thursday) and other dead white mortals to keep an English major busy for a whole semester.
Unlike Kilgore Trout, the sci-fi hack in Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, Mr. Gaiman can actually write. He gets off quite a few bon mots in the course of American Gods: “Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine.” “The important thing to understand about American history … is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children, or the easily bored.” Or (my favorite), “Opiates have become the religion of the masses.”
Like poor Kilgore, however, he does better with his concepts than with his execution. The Gotterdammerung that Wednesday has been plotting never quite comes off, and the novel ends more with a whimper than a bang.
Any book that can see trolls beneath freeway underpasses, though, and identify Rock City as an occult power center will not be a complete waste. In its best moments, American Gods is magical.
Ben Steelman: 343-2208 or firstname.lastname@example.org