Saturday, February 20, 2010

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods: A NovelNeil Gaiman is pretty hot right now - The Sandman graphic novels, the children's film (sort of) Coraline, and a brand new biography of the author and his work have been drawing public ardor and critical acclaim for some time.  In my opinion, however, Gaiman's most beautiful, bewitching and rewarding work are delivered by his novels - Stardust, Neverwhere, and most of all, American Gods, a magnum opus on the intersection of global myth and American Culture.

Shadow is an ex-con, just released from prison after serving a due sentence for an instant of bad judgement.  His faithful (he thinks) wife, has just been killed in a spectacular auto wreck with his best friend.  He is utterly alone and drifting, and then he receives a tempting job offer from the very mysterious Mr. Wednesday.

But Mr. Wednesday is, in fact, a god (you'd probably recognize him under another name).  And like almost all mythological gods in crass, consumerist America, Mr. Wednesday has fallen on hard times, forced to petty theft and the short con to make ends meet since all his worshippers stopped believing in him.  He has a plan, though, for really turning things around for himself, as well as a wide assortment of other forgotten and neglected gods scattered throughout the land - and to make it work he needs Shadow's help.

Soon enough. Shadow finds himself jaunting back and forth across the country, meeting other obsolete gods such as the two proprietors of the Jacquell and Ibis Funeral Parlor (former Egyptian gods of the dead), Czernobog (an Eastern European guy with a lethal sledgehammer), and Anansi, the African spider god (who, despite his great age, still has style and charm to spare).

To make things even more interesting, Shadow now has to contend with the hostile attentions of America's new gods, (incarnated as Credit, Media, Electricity, etc., and their minions), as well the reanimated corpse of his late wife, who just wants to help in any way she can.  And underneath all of this are wheels within wheels of plotting, deception, manipulation and betrayal that astound and gratify the careful reader.

And beneath that is a moving and fascinating explication of how the immigrants of this nation, since time immemorial, have rushed here in such haste to assimilate that they have left their poor faithful deities behind, in favor of new ones born of greed, vanity and information and speed.
This is a very funny book.  It is, however, also wistful, tragic, literate, historical, thought-provoking, occasionally surreal, and hugely satisfying.  It is, in short, damned near perfect.  Even better Gaiman then followed it with a very, very good sequel called Anansi Boys (coming soon to this blog), which is nearly as much fun.  I promise you that you will never look at American culture the same way again.

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