I just realized that I’ve read two books in a row with “American” in the title. Not sure if that’s a complete coincidence or my subconscious doing… something… I don’t know, affirming my move to NYC or something? I don’t really know.
What I do know is that American Gods is, without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve ever read. I urge you to stop reading this review, right now, and go buy it. Go read it. It is not a challenging read, like Gravity’s Rainbow, and it is not the sort of read that you rip through because you just simply cannot put it down, like Stieg Larsson’s books. It is the sort of book you luxuriate in. You let it wash over you like a bath, you take your time with it. Gaiman’s deceptively simple prose sucks you into the world that he’s created – a world like ours but, as the note at the beginning points out, just not quite. Geography is a little different, the way people speak is (perhaps) a little different to what you’re familiar with (being mostly east-coasters and Brits, reading this blog). But I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that so accurately captures what I believe/feel to be the spirit of America. Even Super Sad True Love Story and Money – two novels that rather accurately captured New York City and its life/future/the way people feel here – didn’t grasp this feeling. Movies like Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow are, perhaps, the closest parallel I can think of.
It is no secret to those who know me (and, if you read this blog close enough, you probably could’ve guessed) that I’m fascinated by the mythic, the mysterious, the supernatural. I was the Autumn King for Halloween last year, I never blow out a pumpkin on Halloween, and the months of September/October/November are the most important and the best. I did a project on American folklore as it relates to Halloween when I was a sophomore in high school. I’m pretty crazy about the autumn – and this book was just perfect to be reading as the weather took a turn for the autumnal. Yesterday, I spent most of the day with pot of tea and the window open, listening to the rain while I chewed through the second half of this novel. It’s that kind of book.
Gaiman, an Englishman by birth but something of an ex-pat in America now (soon to be married to Amanda Palmer, ps!), has taken up the thesis that there are no gods in America. That America is, inherently, a land without gods – although the gods came here, certainly. Think about it: each and every culture of the past somehow ended up in the Americas – we’re finding more evidence that these lands were discovered by just about everybody else lonnnnng before Columbus did his thing – and with them came their beliefs. Gaiman includes a couple of vignettes sprinkled throughout the novel, showing how certain gods came to America. Many times, you don’t entirely connect the story with the characters until a little later in the novel – and after they’ve already been long introduced. In that way, this book functions like well-oiled clockwork: each piece clicks together beautifully. But I digress. The idea that these gods were brought to America – still existing in their homelands and older territories, of course – and here they floundered.
I don’t want to give too much plot away, so I’m sticking more to the ideas. The gods survived, of course – though plenty have been forgotten and thus faded out entirely – but a meager living at best was all they could eke out in America. This land owes more to just that: the land. The folk heroes, the ones who had flaws and who we laugh at as much as we revere. That is America – this is not a land for gods. We’ve always revered the land far more than anything else – and so the stories of those who interacted with the land became our mythos. Washington Irving’s stories, Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed… these are not gods but they exist far more strongly in America than do actual gods. The All-Father, Anubis the Jackal, even Anansi… they could not sustain their existence in America. Even the gods of Latin and South America floundered here. This is Gaiman’s concept and Shadow, his protagonist – who is (and remains, to me) someone slightly more than even he realizes – spends the novel discovering this half-world of faded gods that exists here in America.
The plot does, at times, move slowly – but everything has a purpose. More importantly, I never felt the book drag. I didn’t mind moving at a stately pace because I wanted to wrap myself up in this world and stay there. It is a big book and it covers almost half a year – it demands that you take your time with it. You can plow through it, because it does grab you – but I found myself slowing my typically speedy reading pace. The references to different gods are a joy to decipher and Gaiman’s commentary on America might just be the best I’ve ever read – and he isn’t an American (a point he addresses in an appended essay, from an old interview).
Rating: 6 out of 5. I find myself unable to reconcile putting this book next to the other 5+ books from this blog. Gravity’s Rainbow changed my life, The Millennium Trilogy is the perfect set of crime thrillers, Money and Super Sad… were an accidental pairing of perfect bookends on New York… but this book is something more. This book is, without a doubt, at the very top of the heap. It is not just a great book, but it is a great book without being overwhelming or exhausting or anything like that. It speaks to me and my unique loves in such a way that it cannot be anything other than a 6. Some books require you to take a breather after you’ve read them – American Gods demands it of me, simply because I cannot let it go yet. Autumn is peering over the horizon and with it comes my favorite legends and stories of America. This book is a reminder that legends, myths, gods and heroes…. they’re all still here, so long as people believe in them. As the leaves start to turn, my question is: do you still believe?