Allen, Bruce. “‘American’ Armaggedon.” Boston Globe 9 September 2001, E4.
Adult fantasy fiction gets about as much critical respect nowadays as reality TV shows. The canard that the great age of science fiction is 12 might as well have been referring to those extravagant amalgams of revised history, legend, and – let’s face it – occasional runaway feyness that sell in the gazillions and offer in place of either kitchen-sink or psychological realism lavish tales of dungeons and dragons, wizards and demons, questing heroes and imperiled kingdoms.
Many people blame it all on the inexcusable popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” And even the genre’s most ardent defenders (I’m one) won’t deny that dozens of paint-by-the-numbers Tolkien clones clog the fantasy market, and have doubtless obscured the far richer individual achievements of masters like Tim Powers, Peter S. Beagle, John Crowley, and William Browning Spencer (who usually attract mainstream reviews), or Patricia A. McKillip, Lisa Goldstein, and Robert Holdstock (who, more often than not, don’t).
British expatriate (now Minnesotan) Neil Gaiman is the man who just may change all that. After making his mark with the popular and critically acclaimed “Sandman” adult comic series (which unregenerate realist Norman Mailer proclaimed “a comic strip for adults”) and an inspired comic-apocalyptic collaboration (“Good Omens”) with satirical fantasist Terry Pratchett, Gaiman has moved on to more conventional adult fiction, including the novels “Neverwhere” (whose extraordinary events occur in a parallel world located beneath the city of London) and “Stardust.” Even better is his prose and poetry miscellany “Smoke and Mirrors” (whose piece de resistance, “Chivalry,” is a short story for which I would make room in any anthology imaginable).
“American Gods,” equal parts quest, “road” novel, love story, and religious allegory, is Gaiman’s most ambitious book, and probably his best. And its hero, a 32-year-old ex-con improbably named Shadow Moon, is at once his most symbol-laden, attractive, and likable character.
The story begins when Shadow (who grew up fatherless, and has long since lost his mother), on being released from prison for a pointless crime, is informed of the death of his beloved wife, Laura, in an automobile accident. Returning to Indiana for Laura’s funeral, Shadow attracts the attention of an ebullient older man who coyly identifies himself as “Wednesday” (the day on which they meet) and offers Shadow a hazily defined job as his all-purpose chauffeur and handyman – and, it seems, his enforcer.
Weirder things than this begin happening. Shadow has the first of several bizarre dreams in which a man with the head of a buffalo offers sonorous, cryptic advice. Laura’s ghost drops by, and increasing evidence of her spirit’s undeniable corporeality makes it clear that this visitation is emphatically not a dream. Repeated warnings that “a storm is coming” accompany Shadow’s progress throughout the Midwest and beyond, with and without Wednesday. And that warning is both clarified and complicated by the people Shadow meets: a bibulous self-styled leprechaun, “Mad Sweeney”; a trio of elderly fortunetelling sisters and a vigorous aged black man, Mr. Nancy; morticians Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel; and, in the climatically challenged northern Wisconsin hamlet of Lakeside, the garrulous and quite possibly dangerous Hinzelmann.
It soon becomes apparent that Wednesday is the Norse god Wotan, and that the gathering that he is organizing (with Shadow’s aid) represents an attempt to muster the powers of the “old gods” who followed their emigrant believers to America – in order to engage in battle with the “new gods” of communication and commercialism who have replaced them.
This is a delicious premise, if not an entirely original one (in a typically gracious brief afterword, Gaiman implicitly acknowledges such influences as that of “my favorite unfashionable author, James Branch Cabell” – one of his own “old gods,” as it were). Much of the considerable pleasure this novel provides consists in identifying the legendary and/or divine counterparts of its irrepressibly colorful pseudonymous characters. Mr. Nancy, for example, is the West African spider-trickster (and lord of creation) Anansi. Hinzelmann is a German household spirit reputedly capable of both benevolent and malicious acts. This is the sort of novel in which a Middle Eastern ifrit assumes the identity of an immigrant Manhattan cabdriver; the queen of Sheba amuses herself as a casually murderous hooker; and Shadow’s former cellmate “Low Key” Lyesmith bears a disturbing resemblance to the troublemaking Scandinavian demigod Loki. Oh, and when our hero hitches a ride on a “thunderbird” – you guessed it: it’s not a car.
Gaiman ups the narrative ante by juxtaposing with the central chronicle of Shadow’s adventures briefer ones involving the aforementioned and other characters, and also lengthier interpolated narratives that echo the motif of the gods’ displacement – such as the wonderful story of Essie Tregowan, a devious Irish lass “transported” for her crimes to America (whence her homeland’s “piskies” followed her) and that of the arduous passage to the Americas endured by the ancestors of “voudon” queen Marie Laveau.
But Shadow is quite properly central. He’s a good-hearted and resilient (if downbeat and somewhat shaggy) hero, who commands a bit of “magic” himself; he’s made himself an illusionist adept at “coin manipulation.” Furthermore, he is put to a series of tests that recapitulate the experiences of Orpheus seeking his beloved Eurydice (Laura) in the underworld; the medieval knight Sir Gawain stoically preparing to offer up the death he owes to the mysterious Green Knight, whose counterpart here is the surly Middle European deity Czernobog; and, in the novel’s extended (arguably overextended) climax, the mortally wounded Fisher King’s sacrifice, an exchange for the health and safety of his embattled homeland.
There will be readers who will find all of this insufferably precious and clever. (I regret to inform you that Gaiman does not refrain from allowing a character to inquire, about Media, the contemporary “goddess” of instant global communication, “Isn’t she the one who killed her children?”) They may have a point. Yet readers who have enjoyed such classic fantasies as Cabell’s “Jurgen,” the Alice in Wonderland books, E. R. Eddison’s “The Worm Ouroboros,” Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast,” or the exuberant fiction of T. H. White, Fritz Leiber, or Poul Anderson, will want to check out “American Gods.”
It’s a rich, lyrical homage to the repository of narrative bequeathed to us by the mythology and folklore of all cultures, and a generous gift from an inveterate romantic and mythmaker who manifestly loves nothing so much as the simple art of storytelling. We don’t have many writers like that around these days. And, in at least one delighted reader’s opinion, we cannot have too many of them.