The Short Version: Fat Charlie Nancy never really liked his father, who always found ways to embarrass him. When Fat Charlie’s dad dies, though, he finds out that he not only has a brother called Spider – but that his father was the trickster god Anansi. What starts off as a sibling reunion turns into something much worse, as Spider recklessly takes control of Fat Charlie’s life and Fat Charlie enters into a dangerous bargain to rid himself of his brother. There’s some hoodoo, some voodoo, and a number of trips back and forth across the Atlantic – and of course a bit of self-discovery. Blood, after all, is far thicker than water.
The Review: Neil Gaiman (whose episode of Doctor Who airs tonight, ps) is one of my favorite authors. American Gods, as faithful readers know, is one of my favorite novels of all time. This book, a sort-of sequel, takes place in the same universe (as I believe Neverwhere does… but I don’t know if that’s actually true, that’s just my own imagined hope/belief) as AG and one of the major supporting players in that book is the catalyzing force of this one: Anansi. The wily old trickster in his hat, smoking his cheroot, laughing and dancing – he’s here, but only briefly. The story here, as mentioned, deals with his two sons – essentially twins, although there’s a bit of a twist (albeit a predictable one) in that tale.
I was curious to see how this novel would play. It’s far tighter in scope, far more intimate. The adventure, yes, bounces between Florida and London and the Caribbean – but it doesn’t have that epic feel that Gods had. It is a family story. Of course, family stories can be trying, especially when there’s the obligatory Discovery Of Previously Unknown Family and the Irritation At ‘New’ Sibling and the Reveal Of Self-Worth and all that stuff. But this is Gaiman – of course it was going to be more than I’d expected.
First off, although the story has some deeply American roots – it isn’t an American story. So in that sense, it immediately rejected my predictions. Fat Charlie, although born in the States, flees to England as a kid and so he’s basically straight-up English. This is important to keep in mind because it allows Gaiman to write about, well, what he knows. Yes, he’s a dual citizen and all that – but seeing Gaiman return to the scene of London and to even talk about Piccadilly, Leicester Sq, etc… it calls up thoughts of Neverwhere. You realize that he’s writing about home – and as a result, some of the Floridian scenes feel even more otherworldly. Because Florida is, even to me (and I’m a full-blooded American, no matter how often I pretend to be a Brit), a pretty otherworldly place. I can’t wait to read Karen Russell’s Swamplandia for that very reason. But to see that strangeness from the perspective of a Brit is, well, rather entertaining. The four large older ladies who help/hinder Fat Charlie – they’re a hoot. Exactly what you expect large older Southern ladies to look/sound/act like. I picture all of them as some variation on the theme of the old lady in the Coen Brothers remake of The Ladykillers. To give you an idea.
I will admit that the female characters in this book – Daisy and Rosie, specifically – are a bit underdeveloped. This was not a huge sticking point but it did bug me a little. They seemed… two-dimensional instead of three. Whereas Charlie and Spider… well, they’re two halves of a whole. Like a starfish cut in half that then becomes two separate starfish. They both feel like complete characters. The last scenes with Charlie, especially, are terrific – because you suddenly see the Charlie who was lurking around the edges come out in full force. That latent potential is realized, wonderfully. Likewise, we get to see the flip side of Spider’s personality. They’re brothers – with all the feelings and thoughts and life that comes with that term. I liked them.
The plot trucks along at a solid pace and Gaiman keeps it light – in his Q&A at the end, he mentions that although the book veers towards horror at times, it’s really a comedy. I do think that the subplots with Rosie’s mom, Maeve, and even Daisy are all a little thin – they don’t bring much to the table and he knows it so there’s never all that much time spent in those specific stories. Still, it all comes together at the end (as it should) and I understand why we did spend that time in those spots. I’m just not sure that it couldn’t’ve been done in a slightly more meaningful and dense way.
Rating: 5 out of 5. The humor, the pathos, the pace, and the sheer story of a Gaiman novel are why you read his work. Some of them are better than others – but none of them are bad. This book gets great marks for all of those things and for providing a delightful return to the world set up in American Gods. Sure, it has some problems – and it isn’t as good a novel as Gods or even Neverwhere – but it’s still really damn good. Read it over a cloudy weekend when you can let your imagination run free. Oh, and I hope you aren’t scared of spiders (like I am….) because there are some creeeeeeepy spider moments. *shudder*