Manning, Shaun. “‘American Gods’ a miracle.” Hillsdale Collegian, 4 September 2001.
What becomes of a god when he is no longer worshipped? While this question may seem like a hypothetical question for a college student’s exercise in theological debate, it is a very real problem for those who actually happen to be forgotten deities. Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods offers a unique view of the American character through the eyes of the gods it has discarded and one man who must come to terms with their existence.
The central plot focuses on Shadow, who eagerly awaits release from prison to see his beloved wife Laura. Ironically, Shadow’s freedom arrives three days early so that he may attend his wife’s funeral following her fatal car crash. On his flight home, Shadow meets the fiendishly mysterious yet quizzically good-natured Wednesday, who offers Shadow a job as his personal bodyguard. Although he refuses the offer initially, subsequent encounters persuade Shadow to follow his enigmatic benefactor. Their relationship leads Shadow across the nation, following a path of obscure tourist sites and small towns, through hermitages of lost gods, aided only by their wits and, occasionally, Laura.
American Gods is certainly a quest narrative in the traditional and literal sense, as a man stakes out on a long perilous journey to gain an intangible quality absent from his life. More than this, however, the book also examines a far larger quest of a more distant journey.
As the story goes, the gods Shadow encounters were brought to America by immigrants, who worshipped the protectors of their homelands on the soil of the New World. Thus, America stands in the unique position of being not only the refuge of mortal “huddled masses,” but also of the patron deities and demigods these travelers bring with them. A great majority of these figures are unrecognizable to modern minds, and that is the point: These are gods that have been abandoned on foreign soil. Unlike Jesus, who at one point is said to “have done quite well for himself” in America, these beings are forced to con and kill and beg for worship in whatever form they can get it.
Gaiman’s phenomenal ability to simultaneously maintain a number of strong subplots creates an incredible realm nearing reality, as independent events diverge and feedback into the main plot, and threads neglected for 100 pages or more return for a final brilliant flourish.
Readers familiar with Gaiman’s previous works, such as the Sandman series of graphic novels, Neverwhere, and the short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors, will be prepared to make mental notes of each phrase and passing character description, but those reading the author for the first time would do well to relax and be surprised, and give the book a second reading to pick up the intricacies. This practice lends itself to even yet incredibly intense pacing, dispersing clues at exactly the right intervals and revealing secrets just before the reader has enough information to discover them for him or herself.
In short, Gaiman leaves absolutely nothing undone, and knows exactly when to do it. What makes American Gods impressive, aside from strong writing, original storytelling, and the cohesive and intricately crafted plot, is its utterly unique treatment of a fascinating theme.
Gaiman’s command of the most obscure characters, all taken from actual cultural myths and not including the Greco-Roman pantheon, poignantly illustrates the clash of the modern technological world with the traditional and ancestral world of America’s pioneers — and the battle lines are not as clearly drawn as they may seem.
More than simply being a tale of cultural evolution, however, the book examines America from an angle that has been approached but never quite congruently scrutinized.
As such, American Gods is not a study of the American character, but rather an observation of the consequences of that character, an eerie case study of familial relationships and cultural heritage wrapped around a phenomenal epic of a hero’s emergence into life.