In the introduction to his 1973 collection, Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison stated that "when belief in a god dies, the god dies," yielding, inevitably, to deities who reflect the character and obsessions of their respective eras. Twenty-eight years later, Neil Gaiman (Stardust, Neverwhere, the Sandman series) has co-opted this notion, using it as the basis for his ambitious, altogether brilliant new novel, American Gods.
Gaiman's hero is a troubled ex-convict named, appropriately, Shadow. When we first meet him, Shadow is serving a three-year sentence for aggravated assault. Just days before his parole takes effect, Shadow's wife, Laura, dies in a grotesque automobile accident. Alone and adrift, Shadow signs on as driver and bodyguard for an enigmatic grifter who calls himself, simply, Wednesday.
Wednesday, we learn, is a diminished, Americanized incarnation of the Norse god Odin. He is one of a vast pantheon of transplanted gods carried to the New World in the minds and hearts of the endless waves of immigrants. Like most of his fellow gods, Odin/Wednesday has been largely forgotten, replaced by the gods of television, technology, and other icons of a changing world. With Shadow's assistance, Wednesday takes steps to organize these displaced deities, to lead them in a war to the death with the gods of the new Millennium.
American Gods tells the story of that war, and of the hidden personal agendas that lie beneath it. It also tells the story of Shadow's discovery -- and gradual reclamation -- of his own divided soul. Part road novel, part bildungsroman, part revisionist mythology, the narrative ranges across the American landscape, from the magical roadside attraction called The House on the Rock to a Wisconsin town whose picture-perfect surface conceals an ancient, grisly secret. It also takes behind the scenes of the mundane, everyday world, and introduces a credible gallery of gods, demons, and ordinary humans, some of them living, some dead.
Like all such extravagant epics, American Gods is -- as Gaiman clearly acknowledges -- a vast, multi-colored metaphor that has much to say about our ongoing need for meaning and belief and about the astonishing creative power of the human imagination. The result is an elegant, important novel that illuminates our world -- and the various worlds that surround it -- with wit, style, and sympathetic intelligence, and stands as one of the benchmark achievements in a distinguished, constantly evolving career. (Bill Sheehan)
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press.