Released early from prison, Shadow learns that his wife and best friend were killed in a car accident, and with no options left, he agrees to work for a mysterious gentleman called Mr. Wednesday. Together they travel across America, and Shadow learns that Wednesday and his friends are incarnations of old mythological gods, including Mr. Nancy (Anansi), Czernobog, and Wednesday himself as Odin the All-Father, who were brought by the immigrants who came to the United States with gods of the old countries in their heads. With the rise of technology, new gods of the internet, the media, and drugs have arisen, diminishing the power of the old gods. With the threat of extinction, Mr. Wednesday attempts to recruit the old gods to participate in an epic battle against the new American gods.
Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards (among others) for best novel, American Gods deserves the praise. I first read this book soon after its release, but retained only a vague notion of the plot over the years, in addition to questions about American identity, what role gods play in our modern lives, and a blurring of lines between realities in which time and logic and science and magic can exist together. The promise of a television series adaptation next year is as good excuse as any to re-read a book. In this case, I listened to the mesmerizing tenth-anniversary edition (with the “author’s preferred text” including an additional 12,000 words) of a full cast audiobook.
Unlike the first read, I am to keep my head above the dreamlike waters of myth and magic that pull you throughout the novel, and am able to appreciate other details more fully. American Gods is a book about gods, yes, but it is also about coin tricks and misdirection, keeping promises, and lessons we need to learn again and again. Neil Gaiman shows us his personal immigrant experience of coming to America, and the fact that my personal America has a lot more South in it illustrates just how varied the American experience can be. It’s lonely and kitschy and manufactured, and it is our thoughts and focus and acts that shape the identity and meaning of our rootless lives.
But back to the story. Shadow is a fantastically developed large, introverted, quiet, honorable man, who is sometimes too passive for a protagonist. He is reluctantly dragged into a world for which he’s not ready, be that prison or the outside, or a world in which gods and monsters are real. Even the seemingly idyllic and quaint town of Lakeside, the quintessential American small town in which Shadow lies low, is harboring a dark secret of mystery and horror.
American Gods is a dream-like meandering road trip in search of American identity with stops along the way for every road-side attraction.
“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”