Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman
As much as I enjoy watching anime, nothing beats losing oneself in a good book. I’ve been an avid reader since learning how to in first grade and at all times I am reading at least one book. Recently, the anime Earl and Fairy showed the main character leaving a saucer of milk out for the fairies of the area. This act reminded me of one of my absolute favorite books, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and that’s all it took to convince me that it was time to reread the book.
Final Series Score: 12/12
Rereadablity: very high
Pros: the story is both fantastically mythic and utterly believable at the same time, the characters – gods and humans alike – feel like real people that I could meet if I knew where to look, Gaiman’s writing style is meaty yet simple to read and uncluttered with needless writing tricks, many surprises and twists that will keep you reading, stands up well when rereading it
Shadow has almost finished doing his time in prison when he starts to feel that a storm is brewing. This storm is not a normal storm and the feeling of dread over some unknown trouble that the storm will bring starts to weigh on Shadow. Stuck in a cell there’s nothing he can do but wait out the final month but his fears are confirmed when he is called to the warden a week before his release date.
Once out of prison, Shadow meets a strange old man that goes by the name of Mr. Wednesday and Shadow is offered the job of being Mr. Wednesday’s bodyguard/errand boy. Shadow decides to take the offer and Shadow quickly learns that Mr. Wednesday is not a normal person but the physical incarnation of Odin for the country of America. It turns out that any time a god is worshiped in a country, the people’s belief will cause a physical incarnation of that god to exist in that country and he/she/it will continue to live in that country as long as someone remembers them.
Over the course of the book, Shadow will meet gods, spirits, and cultural heroes of the Norse, African, Egyptian, Indian, Hindu, and pagan European pantheons among others. These gods are mostly down-on-their-luck because Americans don’t have a lot time to spend on its gods and thus they don’t have much belief to live on. Some like Thor take their own life, some like Mad Sweeney the leprechaun turn to alcohol, and some eke out a life like Anubis and Ibis, who run a funeral parlor.
As people slowly forget these old gods, new ones are constantly being created. These include the gods of media, who looks like television news anchors as well as the fat, socially awkward, god of technology. These new gods are flush with power and want to get rid of these older gods and this desire will lead to all-out war and this is causing the storm that Shadow feels is coming. Some of the older gods realize the trouble that they are in so Mr. Wednesday takes it upon himself to lead the effort to convince them all to unite against the new gods.
Thoughts and impressions
Several years ago, I bought a book that included a novella written by Neil Gaiman that was about Shadow and it was set a couple years after the events of this book. This was my first time reading anything by Neil Gaiman and even though I’m not a huge fan of fantasy, I loved this story and needed more. This lead to buying American Gods then Anansi Boys and so forth until I eventually bought just about everything Neil Gaiman has written. Every book and story of his has had it’s own charm but none of them have been able to displace American Gods as my favorite Neil Gaiman work. And what’s probably the best proof of that love is that I’ve read American Gods eight times now whereas my other favorite books have been read only once or twice. (There are so many books out there that I don’t have enough time to keep rereading books that I’ve already read.)
There are several reasons, though, why this book is worth reading over and over again. The first is the characters. Shadow, our main character, is almost immediately someone that we emphasize with and hope that he will see better days in future. As he is thrown into situations that are way over his head, we silently root that he can make it through them. Then there’s the gods we meet; Gaiman gives each one a full personality that makes them feel real. You feel the world-weariness of the old gods in their speech, mannerisms, and actions. When they talk about the old days, it feels as if they truly have been around a long time. The new gods act like you’d imagine new gods with a lot of power would act.
Another reason that I like this book is the idea that gods can be created when people sacrifice to the idea of a god because in some sense it feels like the truth. For example, I think of all the time people spend in front of the television and how televisions are placed in places of importance throughout the house and if we combined all this “worship” across the country, it makes sense that there is media gods that looks like news anchors with their perfectly coiffed hair, white perfect teeth, and golden tans. This idea also shows up in the anime Natsume’s Book of Friends. If you remember in episode 2 the Dew god was once worshiped by many of the area and thus he was man-size but now there was only one old woman that still tended his shrine and as a consequence, he was only a couple of inches tall.
One of Neil Gaiman’s objectives in writing this book, as I have read, was for this book to be his reflection on America after discovering once he moved to America that it’s different from how it’s portrayed in film,tv, and books. In this, I think he succeeded. His characterization of America being a hard land for gods to live in rings with truth. One of the things that I used to be surprised about was the sheer amount of religion / the supernatural that is in anime. This isn’t something that you see in tv programs over here.
Also, Shadow strikes me as deeply American. Americans have this belief that if they work hard enough, everything will turn out in the end. I always think of the steel mill where my dad works. The guys that retire from there have oftentimes put in 40+ years there and you’d think that they’d be looking forward to retirement but a sizable percentage of them die within the first couple years after retiring. Poor health would be what would be concluded but it’s not like these guys are on death’s door when they retire; instead, these guys seem to say that once they’re done working, there isn’t much to keep them around. Shadow displays this throughout the book; he works with such determination that it surprises the gods around him. He never allows himself to truly relax even when he’s supposed to, he always looks for something to do.
Finally, much like how I enjoy learning about the religion of Japan from anime, I enjoy the chance to learn about the gods seen in this book. Some are familiar like the Norse ones but many are not, like the trickster god from Africa that goes by the name Nancy. I remember the first time reading this book and being surprised when we meet the pagan goddess Easter and see that bunnies and eggs where part of her observance. It’s a shame that more time couldn’t have been spent with the different gods. In Nancy’s case, luckily, he and his two sons are the focus of another book by Gaiman – Anansi Boys.
So, in conclusion, if you’re looking for an interesting, fun, and different book – I highly recommend giving this book a shoot.