American Gods

American Gods Book Cover

Author: Neil Gaiman
Winner: Hugo Award, Best Novel, 2002; Nebula Award, Best Novel, 2002; Locus Award, Best Novel, 2002; SFX Magazine Award, Best Novel, 2002; Bram Stoker Award, Best Novel, 2002; Geffen Award, 2004
Original Publication: 2001
Genre: Fiction (Supernatural)

I read this as a result of hearing, for the dozenth time, “What do you mean, you haven’t read anything by NEIL GAIMAN!” Intrigued by the premise, I thought that American Gods might be an excellent place for me to start, despite The Graveyard Boy and Coraline having been recommended to me several times.

Shadow is a man in prison for assault who is nearing the end of his sentence. All he wants is to return to his home, his wife, and his regular life. The week before his sentence is up, he receives word that he will be released several days early, because his wife has been killed in a car accident. On his way home for the funeral, he finds himself being stalked by a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday and is intent on offering him a mysterious job as a sort of bodyguard. Having no more attractive options on the horizon, Shadow accepts.

The premise of American Gods is that all of the Gods ever imagined by humankind, in any mythology, actually do exist and only because people believe in them. As a result of the mass immigration in the past to the United States from other countries, America has become the ultimate hodgepodge of old world Gods – leprechauns, piskies, dwarves, Old Norse Gods, Roman Gods, Greek Gods, Hindu Gods, Native American Gods, etc. Over the years as the belief in these Gods has waned, new ones have come to take their place – Gods of technology and progress, media and drugs. The new Gods seek to obliterate the old ones, and a war is imminent. Shadow, although not entirely privy to what is transpiring, is charged with protecting Mr. Wednesday as he rallies the old Gods together against the new.

Like Shadow, I spent much of the novel wondering what in the world was going on. The story takes a little time getting to where it’s going (although the journey is tremendously interesting), and in the end, you’re not entirely sure what happened, almost to the point that you want to turn back to the first page and read the whole thing over again with new eyes. I think it may have helped if I were better versed in the various mythologies. A close eye for detail reveals, as in many clever books, revealing elements in the character names and places. Regardless of the nature of the story, in reading it, one is treated to passages like this:

None of this is actually happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as a metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you – even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.

Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.

So none of this is happening. Such things could not occur. Never a word of it is literally true. Even so, the next thing that happened, happened like this:

Fun Fact: If one is familiar with Gaiman’s Sandman series, in addition to the numerous figures from real-world myths, a few characters from The Sandman and its spinoffs make brief cameos in American Gods.

Bother if: I thought it was a very interesting, nuanced story, if relatively easy for me to put down. I enjoyed this novel, and found many of the concepts downright fascinating. Fans of science fiction, fantasy, mythology, and the supernatural might especially enjoy it. I especially liked the use of one particular metaphor for the possible futility of fighting the modern Gods: “I know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town.”

Don’t Bother if: My main critique was that the novel seemed to focus more on the characters and fine details than the big picture – It may have been just me, but I felt like I spent much of the story wondering not only what was going on, but why. It all becomes relatively clear at the end, but I found it a little jarring to read most of a novel in a dual state of being both extremely interested in what was going on, and having no idea what was going on. The novel also contains disturbing sex, violence, foul language, and polytheism (obviously), as well as being a minor indictment of organized religion.

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7 comments

  • I read this book a few years ago and thought it was fantastic.

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

  • Great review, I had very similar reactions to the book – difficult in places, but just loved the overall concept of what happens to gods no one believes in anymore. Am now a fan.

    • Hello, bookspersonally, thanks for stopping by! If you loved the concept, you might check out Marie Phillips’ “Gods Behaving Badly.” There’s a review on this site about it. It’s in a similar vein, but all of the Gods are of the Greek variety.

  • I’ve enjoyed American Gods enough to read it a few times. Everytime I get something new out of it. I’m not well versed in mythology, but I do enjoy reading anything that has anything to do with mythology, and I always enjoy when an author pulls a fast one on me.

    You’re right, the first thing you want to do after reading American Gods is start it over again.

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