Readers embark on a bizarre yet distinctly American road trip in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The sprawling novel weaves together realistic elements, such as meals in greasy spoon diners, with a fantasy plotline based on folklore. It wanders through the Dakotas, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and a netherworld of mythical and legendary figures related to America’s many cultural roots.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
2002 (paperback reprint of 2001 hardback)
HarperTorch, ISBN 978-0-380-78903-0
Gaiman long ago hit the road to movie fame with his children’s story Coraline. The larger-than-folklore characters of American Gods soon will barrel down the freeways of cable TV in this big rig of a story. Starz Media, in early July, took over development of American Gods as a series — a project begun by HBO. Gaiman is one of the executive producers.
Although from England, Gaiman has lived in the United States since 1992. One of his great talents is in switching voice fluidly from one culture to another. He is also a successful crossover novelist, who writes for children and teens (The Sandman graphic novel series) as well as adults.
Gaiman’s children’s novel The Graveyard Book — an elegiac tale about a boy who grows up in a graveyard — won the Newbery Award in 2009 and is so popular with adults that it also won a Hugo award for fantasy fiction that year.
Like a British Stephen King, Gaiman goes over the top and epic in American Gods. Epic journeys, whether on roads or rivers, have been a staple of American fiction and nonfiction since the 1884 publication of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Similar to Twain, Gaiman takes his rough-edged central character on a wild ride through countless dangers.
At the beginning of the novel, the hulking Shadow will soon leave prison. Although built for trouble, he has done his best to avoid it by focusing on the “distant beam of hope” represented by love for his wife.
But just before his release, Shadow loses his sense of purpose when his wife dies in an auto accident. He is ripe for recruiting by a mysterious stranger who appears to meet him by chance but knows way too much about the ex-con.
Shadow’s irritation turns to anger and then to fear when the stranger, Mr. Wednesday, offers him a vague job that sounds like it involves illegal pursuits.
“Work for me,” Mr. Wednesday says while grinning so broadly that he reminds Shadow of a chimpanzee baring its teeth as a threat. “There may be a little risk, of course, but if you survive you can have whatever your heart desires. You could be the next king of America.”
Mr. Wednesday isn’t kidding. He is actually Odin (in German, the Woden of “Woden’s Day” or Wednesday). Also known as “All-Father,” he is the top god of Norse and Germanic mythology. Wednesday needs Shadow’s help to gather a ragtag army of fallen gods for a battle to regain power over the “gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television.”
Shadow meets a not-so-heavenly host of characters, including violent crazies, all of whom embody myths and legends brought to America by emigrants long ago.
Move over Johnny Appleseed! There’s no room for warm and fuzzy songs in this fantasy. American Gods is likely the strangest retelling of American folklore readers and TV viewers will ever meet.
Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix, 07-28-2014