For me American Gods is at least four different books… maybe more, and I like them all. I think it’s an amazing read.
To begin with American Gods is an epic similar in scope and story almost to the Iliad or even the Aeneid. It’s all about Gods and their struggles as reflected in the struggles of men and women in the real world. The concept is titanic: all the gods who ever came to America, who are gradually being forgotten and are fading out of existence, have decided to wage one final battle for survival. The old Gods brought here by the Norse, by the slaves from Africa, by the ancient Egyptians who somehow must have come here too, by the ancient Irish, by the first peoples to cross the land bridge from Asia to America, and even by the fairly recent white settlers who conjured up all those mythical characters of Americana… they’re all ready to take on the Gods of the new mythology of media, technology, cars, and modern life. Much of the book is about preparations for this upcoming monster battle as carried out by a guy named Shadow whose aid has been enlisted by Wednesday one of the key Gods. Wednesday is actually Odin, the All-Father. Presented in kind of a grouchy old Mel Brooks voice if you can believe it. That’s the first kind of book this is.
As another kind of book, American Gods is a collection of beautifully told short stories, personal accounts of how the ancient gods were brought to America, as noted: by the Norse, by Africans captured as slaves, by the first Asians to cross the land bridge across Alaska. In telling these stories from the point of view of the people who actually lived them, Gaiman gives us a feeling of what it might have been like to actually be there at that time. It’s amazing storytelling!
But surprisingly American Gods is also a whole different kind of book. It is the account of a preposterous two-man con… sort of American Hustle but on an epic scale. Loki, one of the Old Norse Gods assumes a different identity and he and Odin (apparent adversaries) are really working together to try and convince all the other Gods to go to war with each other. So the old Gods prepare to take on the new in a battle for faith and remembrance… the two things that supposedly keep Gods alive. But Loki and Odin need something more than faith and remembrance; they need blood sacrifice, and what better way to get it than in an all out war. Quite a con, but Shadow figures it out, and – at the last minute – he talks the other Gods out of the battle, and the war is averted. Too bad, it would have been a hell of a scene, and I have no doubt that Gaiman has all the narrative power to stage it beautifully. My only real regret it that he didn’t at least give us a little more taste of it.
But there are four different kinds of books here, I think, and the last one is a murder mystery thriller. Worse than that, it’s a serial killer story. It seems that kindly old Mr. Hinzelmann, the owner of the video store in a friendly and prosperous little town of Lakeside Wisconsin, where Shadow is forced to hide out during much of the book, is really a God himself, one who demands an annual sacrifice of a bright young child if he is going to keep the town far more successful and friendly than all the neighboring areas, which are suffering from economic decay. Shadow confronts Hinzelmann too; he avenges the past murders, saves future kids, but in the process dooms the town to the kind of suffering known to their neighbors.
Shadow is a great character in my mind, he’s extremely stoic, world weary, resigned to do whatever is necessary, yet intelligent, and amazingly loyal. He loves his wife desperately, even though she talked him into participating in a crime that eventually landed him in jail, even though she died having sex with Shadow’s best friend the night before Shadow was to be released from prison. It hurts Shadow, but he still loves her. She calls him puppy, and she haunts him, tries to have sex with him even after she’s dead and has a decidedly rotting smell about her. Shadow approaches everything with an understated detachment that is somehow incredibly reassuring. He takes us on endless walks through the back stage of human existence. He helps us meet some of the most amazing characters ever to come out of mythology. In some ways Shadow is a Christ figure. Turns out he’s the son of a God, (Odin), is hung on a tree to die, and somehow has had his side pierced by a lance. Then he’s brought back to life. The other gods of course complain that Christianity repurposed all their best holidays and traditions from Christmas to Easter and conveniently took them for their own. So maybe Shadow is a figure for Christ and other Gods before Him. Gaiman had a scene where Shadow meets Jesus and had a talk with him. He took it out of the novel but does offer it in the extended 10thanniversary audio. It’s pretty sympathetic I think, to Shadow and to Jesus, except that in this story Jesus makes really lousy wine.
About that 10thAnniversary audio: it’s a dramatization, so different actors play the different roles. This makes the book flow beautifully and may overcome some of the formatting and organizational issues that might confuse people. For anyone who wants an easy way into American Gods and can afford it’s heft price tag this may be a great way to go.