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American Gods, Take One

By Paula Guran

[One of two reviews by the same reviewer of the same book. Click here to read the other.]

Neil Gaiman
William Morrow/ $26.00/ Hardcover/ 480 pp.
ISBN: 0380973650

Gaiman, always a superb storyteller, comes into his own as a novelist with AMERICAN GODS. The novel gives Gaiman, a Brit who lives in Minnesota, an opportunity to consider the States with a fond eye, fantastic imagination, and the ability to translate the mundane into mythic terms. It takes audacity to write about something as big and intangible as the very soul of America. Most authors reduce this theme to the metaphor of a small-town or an easily dissectable incident. Gaiman has the brass to approach it as an epic, an ultimate road-trip, and as a revelation. He takes chances and succeeds brilliantly.

"Nobody is American. Not originally." In the beginning there was only the land. The immigrants came across a fragile land bridge, across the seas in long ships and reed boats, in the sinking holds of slave ships. They came fleeing famine, seeking a second chance, looking for opportunity. They brought their gods, their theologies, their mythologies with them. But America "is not a country that tolerate gods for long." Sacrifices cease, prayers dwindle, adoration dies. There's nothing left but madness, death, or hardscrabble survival among mortals as streetwalkers, con artists, or occasionally doing honest work. But new gods arise, impatient "gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon." Conflict is brewing and protagonist Shadow becomes part of it.

Shadow is a big man quietly serving time in prison, passing time reading Herodotus's HISTORIES and learning coin tricks. Living for reunion with his wife and a new life, he feels "disaster hovering" as his release date approaches. Doom does strike and leaves him a free man, but with nothing left to live for. He accepts employment from a mysterious old grifter named Wednesday and is drawn into a world where he must quickly accept encounters with divinity, prophetic dreams, and even the occasional miracle. Wednesday is on a mission to form an alliance of the old gods to counter the new and Shadow is his sidekick.

Book Cover The main story proceeds in a linear manner interspersed with episodic stories of immigration and importation of faith followed, inevitably, by assimilation and apostasy. Shadow, for the first two-thirds of the book, is an Everyman, a walking opportunity; a likeable sympathetic character who enables the reader to drift into an intelligent acceptance of the impossible. (Among other things we learn that tourist attractions are places of power, that the dead can sometimes walk and talk, that leprechauns are tall, and that there's a "backstage" to what we perceive as reality.) Eventually Shadow emerges as an archetypal mythic hero, a role that's pattern Joseph Campbell summarized as "a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return" to achieve a moral objective. Shadow's adventures and trials become, in retrospect, part of the hero's journey to transformation. The disappearance/emergence of gods is not radically original idea to explore in fantasy. Gaiman himself acknowledges Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny. But Gaiman broadens the scope, humanity, and complexity of the concept. Compared to his old gods (drawn from a variety of cultures including African, Norse, Egyptian, Celtic, Hindu. American Indian, and more), his new gods seem to be intentionally vague and unformed. But that is how it should be a narrative in which the oldsters project distinct personalities acquired over the ages. The youngsters are still only static and binaries, wavelength and signal, media without message -- undeveloped and transitory. The always-prescient John Shirley touched briefly on both the origin and poetry of such modern gods with his Spirits of the Urban Wilderness in the vastly under-rated and often misinterpreted novel SILICON EMBRACE (Mark V. Ziesing, 1996), but even Shirley did not ask them to sustain the antagonist role they must play in AMERICAN GODS.

But just as Herodotus related myths as history and history became myth; as magic tricks can be either magic or tricks or sometimes both -- there's more to AMERICAN GODS than a readable, entertaining, reinterpretation/updating of religion. Full of sardonic wit and clever observation, the novel is also a romance, an adventure, and something Gaiman once described as a "theological thriller." There's exploration of honor, loyalty, and the ironies of freedom. ("That's the miracle of America. Freedom to believe means the freedom to believe the wrong thing, after all. Just as freedom of speech gives you the right to remain silent.") There's no clean delineation between good and evil, right and wrong, but there is an acknowledgement of the need for belief -- a rational magic, a sympathetic spirituality -- suitable for the 21st century. Finally, AMERICAN GODS is grounded in unredeemable darkness: a realization that sacrifice involves loss and that death seldom leads to rebirth. Only at the story's end does one realize just how frightening a journey it has been.

Like Tennessee William's character Tom in THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Gaiman has tricks in his pocket and things up his sleeve, but -- unlike the stage magician who gives "illusions that give the appearance of truth -- he gives us "truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." With AMERICAN GODS, he accomplishes these feats with an ineffable flair that deserves a standing ovation. (June 2001) -- Paula Guran -- From "Waves of Fear", Cemetery Dance #36

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Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.