The Barnes & Noble Review
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.
Read an Excerpt
The boundaries of our country, sir? Why sir, on the north we arebounded by the Aurora Borealis, on the east we are bounded by therising sun, on the south we are bounded by the procession of theEquinoxes, and on the west by the Day of Judgment.
-- The American Joe Miller's Jest Book
Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.
The best thing – in Shadow's opinion, perhaps the only good thing – about being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he'd plunged as low as he could plunge and he'd hit bottom. He didn't worry that the man was going to get hurt, because the man had got him. He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.
It did not matter, Shadow decided, if you had done what you had been convicted of or not. In his experience everyone he met in prison was aggrieved about something: there was always something the authorities had got wrong, something they said you did when you didn't – or you didn't do quite like they said you did. What was important was that they had gotten you.
He had noticed it in the first few days, when everything, from the slang to the bad food, was new. Despite the misery and the titter skin-crawling horror of incarceration, he was breathing relief.
Shadow tried not to talk too much. Somewhere around the middle of year two he mentioned his theory to Low Key Lyesmith, hiscellmate.
Low Key, who was a grifter from Minnesota, smiled his scarred smile. "Yeah," he said. "That's true. It's even better when you've been sentenced to death. That's when you remember the jokes about the guys who kicked their boots off as the noose flipped around their necks, because their friends always told them they'd die with their boots on."
"Is that a joke?" asked Shadow.
"Damn right. Gallows humor. Best kind there is."
"When did they last hang a man in this state?" asked Shadow.
"How the hell should I know?" Lyesmith kept his orange-blond hair pretty much shaved. You could see the lines of his skull. "Tell you what, though. This country started going to bell when they stopped hanging folks. No gallows dirt. No gallows deals."
Shadow shrugged. He could see nothing romantic in a death sentence.
If you didn't have a death sentence, he decided, then prison was, at best, only a temporary reprieve from life, for two reasons. First, life creeps back into prison. There are always places to go further down. Life goes on. And second, if you just hang in there, someday they're going to have to let you out.
In the beginning it was too far away for Shadow to focus on. Then it became a distant beam of hope, and he learned how to tell himself "this too shall pass" when the prison shit went down, as prison shit always did. One day the magic door would open and he'd walk through it. So he marked off the days on his Songbirds of North America calendar, which was the only calendar they sold in the prison commissary, and the sun went down and he didn't see it and the sun came up and he didn't see it. He practiced coin tricks from a book lie found in the wasteland of the prison library; and lie worked out; and he made lists in his head of what he'd do when he got out of prison.
Shadow's lists got shorter and shorter. After two years he had it down to three things.
First, he was going to take a bath. A real, long, serious soak, in a tub with bubbles. Maybe read the paper, maybe not. Some days he thought one way, some days the other.
Second he was going to towel himself off, put on a robe. Maybe slippers. He liked the idea of slippers. If he smoked he would be smoking a pipe about now, but he didn't smoke. He would pick up his wife in his arms ("Puppy," she would squeal in mock horror and real delight, "what are you doing?"). He would carry her into the bedroom, and close the door. They'd call out for pizzas if they got hungry.
Third, after he and Laura had come out of the bedroom, maybe a couple of days later, he was going to keep his head down and stay out of trouble for the rest of his life.
"And then you'll be happy?" asked Low Key Lyesmith. That day they were working in the prison shop, assembling bird feeders, which was barely more interesting than stamping out license plates.
"Call no man happy," said Shadow, "until he is dead."
"Herodotus," said Low Key. "Hey. You're learning."
"Who the fuck's Herodotus?" asked the Iceman, slotting together the sides of a bird feeder and passing it to Shadow, who bolted and screwed it tight.
"Dead Greek," said Shadow.
"My last girlfriend was Greek," said the Iceman. "The shit her family ate. You would not believe. Like rice wrapped in leaves. Shit like that."
The Iceman was the same size and shape as a Coke machine, with blue eyes and hair so blond it was almost white. He had beaten the crap out of some guy who had made the mistake of copping a feel off his girlfriend in the bar where she danced and the Iceman bounced. The guy's friends had called the police, who arrested the Iceman and ran a check on him which revealed that the Iceman had walked from a work-release program... American Gods. Copyright © by Neil Gaiman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.