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