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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

American Gods

Reviewed: January 3, 2003
By: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
456 Pages, $10.99

Since comics wunderkind Neil Gaiman’s first novel (Good Omens) was a collaboration with Terry Prachett and his second (Neverwhere) was developed from a television series he had written from British television, one might be excused for calling American Gods his first actual solo novel. It will not come as a surprise to anyone that this book visits some of the same territory which Gaiman spent six years sculpting in his multi-award winning 75 issue comic book series, The Sandman.

The notion that mythology has some place in the modern world is not unique to Gaiman. Joseph Campbell reintroduced us to the idea from a scholarly perspective during his long career and Carl Jung made it an integral part of his reinterpretation of Freudian psychotherapy.

Our culture’s fascination with the themes inherent in mythology can be seen in all manner visual media, from Buffy the Vampire Slayerto the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings. In Canada, Charles DeLint has been exploring his own version of these themes for close to two decades now. His work is perhaps the closest in flavour to what Gaiman has attempted here, though DeLint is conspicuously less ironic in his handling of the supernatural.

American Gods takes Gaiman out of the English milieu which has been the setting for most of his work and sees the author attempt a less obviously British tone. Like many writers, he moved to the place he wanted to write about and spent some time wandering the landscape he wished to portray. His research seems to have been effective.

We begin with Shadow, a criminal who has served his time and wants nothing so much as to return to his old life and his woman, Laura. We will discover that he is not such a bad man, that he simply hasn’t thought a lot about the world and what it all means. Prison has begun to change that. Events will do the rest.

Events begin when he meets Mr. Wednesday, a con artist of some skill, who seems to know a disquieting number of things about Shadow and the people who used to be in his life, “used to be” being the operative phrase. Laura has died in a car accident, along with his friend and prospective employer, Robbie. Laura, it develops, is dead but not gone. Her deteriorating physical presence continues to haunt Shadow throughout much of the novel. But I’m ahead of myself.

In a novel with this title it should have been clear from the beginning that people are often not what they seem. Wednesday, for instance, is an incarnation of the fellow whose namesake that day is, variously known as Woden, or Odin. He and the other older gods, who came to America along with the people who worshipped and remembered them, are about to enter into a battle with the new gods of the New World, the gods of progress, technology and the various industrial revolutions.

We learn about the migration of the European and Asian gods through a series of vignettes (“Coming to America”) which follow the lives of immigrants from several cultural backgrounds. Other short segments (“Somewhere in America”) reveal what some of the immortals have become over the years, as the number of their believers has declined along with their abilities. As might be expected, Gaiman has some interesting perspectives on the possibilities inherent in the situation, and he handles them with his typical blend of humour and horror.

Shadow is installed by Wednesday in a small city called Lakeside. From there Shadow is picked up and taken on various assignments all over the country, small adventures connected to the bigger operation in which Woden is engaged. It’s a big operation, it involves a very big con, and that’s all I’m going to tell you.

In Lakeville itself there is the mystery of the missing girls, the latest of which has just gone missing when Shadow arrives. This is a straightforward mystery with most of the clues available to you before you are told the answer, but neither you nor Shadow could have picked up on them without having gone through the rest of the story.

American Gods is a gripping story full of love, sadness and adventure. I’m not sure it lives up to the hype it has received, but that would have been difficult. It’s not as ground breaking as some critics think. It has a deep ancestry in magazines like Unknown Worlds, comic books like Eerie, and the work of writers like Fletcher Pratt and John Crowley. There are a number of people doing variations on this type of theme today. Many of them are as interesting as Gaiman, but he is good at this, and I will certainly look forward to his next effort.

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