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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Book review: American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
(Bear with me, this is the first book review I've written since high school.)

One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see?

There are several ways, I've found, to write a story that people enjoy reading. One is to create characters the readers can identify with; another is to research the absolute heck out of things and create a solid backdrop. American Gods falls in the second category, though you shouldn't take that to mean the characters are cardboard or wooden (it's just hard to identify with gods sometimes). But Gaiman is either an enthusiastic student of ancient pagan beliefs or a fantastic researcher — perhaps both.

The story centers around Shadow Moon (although you never quite hear him called that), a big quiet man. As the story begins, Shadow is counting down the days to the end of three years in prison. He has a wife and a job waiting for him outside, and he wants nothing more than to get home and stay out of trouble for the rest of his life. But just days before his release, both his wife and future boss are killed in an accident.

Released a few days early, Shadow struggles to get home through a storm, meeting a strange man on the airplane who calls himself “Wednesday.” He knows Shadow's name, offers him a job and refuses to take “no” for an answer. Finally bowing to the inevitable, Shadow sets out on a strange journey that takes him all across America and even “backstage.”

What I'm trying to say is that America is like that. It's not good growing country for gods.

To many immigrants, America was truly the Land of Opportunity, where everyone could have a place of their own and live unmolested by nobility. But for their old gods like Odin or Eostre, or mythical creatures like piskies and leprechauns, America is a desert isle where belief fades with the first generation immigrants. Worse, there are new gods to contend with: gods of steel and glass, gods of cathode rays and silicon, gods of intangibles, gods of rail and highway. There's only so much belief to go around, and Wednesday's quest is to rally as many of his fellow old gods as he can to face off against the modern upstarts. And the beliefs and culture heroes of those who came first are still to be contended with.

You know why dead people only go out at night? Because it's easier to pass for real, in the dark.

In the presence of gods and myths, even those who feed on human sacrifice (Old Europe's gods were bloody-minded creatures), sometimes it's hard for the dead to stay dead. But in what we like to think of as the “real” world, sometimes the living do not truly live. Shadow's wife Laura is somewhat more than a memory, and sometimes Shadow seems to just go through the motions of living. But in the end, as Wednesday says, misquoting Julian of Norwich, “All is well, and all is well, and all shall be well.”*

*The actual quote is “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Not even pagan gods are infallible.


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