Spoiler warning—this review discusses themes from the novel and TV show American Gods in a manner best enjoyed by those who’ve already read the book and/or seen the series.
I first read Neil Gaiman sometime in the early aughts, I think it might have been 2002. The novel was titled Neverwhere, and I didn’t know it had been a TV series. I had just picked it up as a random fantasy novel as I often did back then and started reading away. I found it so-so—I couldn’t relate at all to the main character, but sort of liked the villains, and was pleasantly surprised at not being able to guess the traitor. So it was all right.
I was travelling on a Greyhound bus, coming down from Maine to New York City, and having run out of reading material, decided I might as well try to take in the chapter stuffed in the back that came from another of his novels, something called American Gods. I read about Shadow, a man about to be released from prison and full of all the excitement and apprehension that goes with it. I, too, felt like I was about to embark on a journey into the unknown. Along with that feeling I also noticed that the prose itself in this novel had a grittier texture, like those styles called ‘realism’ and ‘surrealism’ had been mixed together. I decided I was going to give this author another try, and picked up a copy of American Gods when I arrived in New York.
On one level, we can describe this novel’s story arc in very simple terms. A mysterious con-man hires an ex-convict to travel the United States to help him in his quest to become the king of all the con-artists… But no, says a reader, it’s that they are gods, Mr. Wednesday is Odin, Mr. Nancy is Anansi. Yes, they are gods, but they are gods involved in, for better or for worse, type of popularity contest which feeds their very existence. And so I place emphasis first on the themes of cons and games of deception because the story’s arc (as well as America’s) can be said to be about travelling and the necessarily tricks required to survive on the road.
As the story unfolds, it slips into a kind of Kerouac’s-On-The-Road-meets-grown-up-Wizard-of-Oz feel. Shadow’s and Mr. Wednesday’s travels meander, and in this way, the narrative does not overtly move in the five-act script style from inciting incident to climax. The two characters move from state to state, pulling small swindles and meeting a smorgasbord of gods new and old. They are pursued by characters like Technology Boy and shadowy government power-hounds known as the Black Hats. All the while, much of the tension focuses on Shadow’s relationship with Wednesday, his reluctant admiration for him and curiosity about his identity. At the same time, he deals with the still lit flame for his deceased and adulterous wife, Laura. Due to a misplaced gift of a magic coin from Shadow himself, Laura returns from the dead to both haunt and help Shadow on his quest, and becomes a kind of parallel companion who contrasts Wednesday in her ironic sort of loyalty and visceral love.
With these elements in place, the story builds into an increased yet steady rhythm that lasts for much of the middle part of the narrative. Gaiman weaves anecdotes about Celtic and African gods and embeds them like short stories contained within the broader arc. They appear as colorful distractions, but also serve to build the understanding of how gods, when worshipped sincerely and by many, grow in power. This dynamic is improved when a given god’s attributes are part of the worshipping—a war god thrives on slaying, a love god on erotic acts, a storm god on lightning.
In allowing for this meandering path to build the narrative’s tension, Gaiman takes great risk. Particularly in our time, when the instant is everything, when we are ostensibly supposed to seize audiences before they know they’ve been seized, this kind of spiral-web might come across as possibly swollen. The story’s strands appear to strain under America’s vastness, its specific and exceptional place in time and geography of the history of the world’s cultures (Gaiman himself addresses the difficulty of seeing this vastness all at once in his essay How Dare You? wherein he touches on how to write about topics of such a size). It would seem on a certain level that the narrative’s spiral-path helps handle the apparent paradoxes of American diversity and unity. Such is reflected by the presence of very distinct gods who share common needs. The relativity of time and place, size and significance, moves to center stage, and we begin to glimpse how gods from the old world can take on new attributes, how the large can become small, and vice-versa.
I’ll digress into my own experience, by way of example. I am originally a New Englander, born in Connecticut, whisked to Maine before I was one-year-old, where I then lived until I was 25. Although I’ve been to both Europe and Asia, I have also travelled around a lot just within New England. What? Isn’t that an absurd concept, “travelling around” within that tiny place called New England? But yes, that’s what I mean—I’ve paddled through spartan New Hampshire with its bills-paid-on-time farmsteads and rivers clean as the barrels of well-oiled rifles. I’ve hitchhiked through Vermont where they distill music like moonshine, even if the bills might not get paid on time (whether the cash is kept under a mattress or in several money-market accounts). I’ve rolled along the coast of Maine countless days and nights, where icy horrors-that-must-not-be-named well up from the ocean and can be packed and sold for $21.99 a pound (some in flash frozen filets, others in paperback, hardcover, and e-book). I’ve sped down the highways of Massachusetts, where ale’s an art-form and disrespect for the Sox might still get you hung as a witch. I’ve bussed through Rhode Island where a talent for poetry is almost as good as a talent for tattoos, and of course, I’ve attended grad school in Connecticut, where you can’t buy beer at gas stations and besides, it’s after ten o’clock. New England has its own vastness, its states able to birth their gods, along with the accompanying distinctions and similarities.
But even with this relative nature of culture being recognized, underneath, American Gods knows well America’s very specific position in its history, one that is both idyllic and horrific. If we think the meandering trip is mere sight-seeing, if we find the weaving of the web dazzling but empty, we are watching only the hand that is offering us the feint. Because the story’s other hand has been reaching straight for the jugular…
About halfway through the story, Shadow reaches Lakeside, a quiet town in northern Wisconsin. He meets some friendly locals such as old-timer Hinzelmann and police officer Chad Mulligan who invite him to enjoy the small town life. The town, its pub, its peaceful library, all of its charms function as a kind of ‘eye’ in the novel’s storm. The physical distance these Wisconsin scenes have from where the cons and conflicts take place mirrors the narrative distance this ‘eye’ ostensibly has from the coming plot climax.
We must be careful here, lest we lose sight of the web through the strands. We discover the novel’s true ruse when there is no turning back, that America is a beautiful, but dangerous place. We can see its forest and mountains, taste its food and witness its roadside attractions. But we should keep an awareness of its distinct personality and power, and, among the conflicts of its gods vying for attention and survival, the inevitable blood that will be drawn. The blood will often run where you least expect it—aw look at that clown, he’s so funny, and he’s great with kids! Mr. Gacy, can I get your number? My friend’s got a four-year-old with a birthday coming up… …dude, check out McVeigh’s car, hilarious, dude, a beat-up old Marquis. Have fun on your road trip, man…
So we see how America’s web feeds very real spiders, and how American Gods is a novel which can be quite accurately placed in the horror genre. It does not deny America its paradoxes or sugarcoat its history, but does offer insights into how gods and the futures they occupy can be re-sculpted again and again.
It is in this spirit of re-sculpting and reinventing that Shadow thwarts the disguised horrors with his own version of a disguised strength. When it becomes clear that the battle of the gods is a trick, a con put in motion by Odin and Loki to make a blood sacrifice of gods for gods, Shadow gains respect not through overt battle but by making his own very specific sort of blood sacrifice to Odin (i.e., by offering himself). And when we learn that Lakeside has been sacrificing children to Hinzelmann the kobold all along, that small town America sups handsomely on blood, Shadow does not confront the devourer alone, but together with the town native Chad Mulligan. We see in Shadow a unique ability to handle oversight and deception, an original way to confront masks and disguises. For we learn through him that the antonym of strength is not gentleness, and that patience is not a synonym for weak. He shows instead that, when confronting the many faces of the monstrous, if you weave a mask of your own, you have some say in how the eyes see.