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American Gods (Tenth Anniversary Edition) – Review

by: Gaiman, Neil
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd St New York
Cover: Betty Lew
Copyright: 2011

 
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, 09/5/2011
Summary: A distinctly American novel, the story of Shadow and his quest for spiritual relevancy in modern America.

A slight detour: There was a movie released in early 2011, Vanishing on 7th Street ], which, like AMERICAN GODS, is rooted in Americana. If you have never heard of Vanishing on 7th Street it is most likely because it was torpedoed by overacting-a condition in which actors “over-perform” and smother the story in emotive theatrics. The story however is intriguing. The storyline relied upon the history of Roanoke Island and the vanishing of ninety or so people in 1587. Three years after the colonization in 1590, when a supply ship returned, there was not a soul found. All ninety people had vanished. The only clue as to what happened to them was a word carved into a post of the fort they had erected. The word “Croatoan”. In 1590, John White, a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, who discovered the word assumed that the people had moved to the nearby Croatoan Island (Hatteras Island). But this was not confirmed. No one knows for sure exactly what happened to those ninety people. So we have the story of the vanished colony of Roanoke Island and that word, “Croatoan”.


In Vanishing on 7th Street, the word “Croatoan” becomes the rationale for the weird events playing out. People are vanishing into an encroaching darkness. On the edge of this darkness are the forms of the people who have vanished into it. In Neil Gaiman’s extraordinary novel, American Gods the protagonist is aptly named Shadow. This rather coincidental play upon darkness, with all its connotations, in two different media quite naturally leads to a consideration of serendipity. But since AMERICAN GODS, first published in 2001 and republished in 2011, proceeds the movie, maybe serendipity has nothing to do with it. However, the idea of a shadowy “spirit” effusing the essence of Americana goes back far beyond these two works. (Think short story, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER by Stephen Vincent Benet published in 1938, or in more general terms, American Spiritualism of the 1840s onward).
We meet Shadow when he is being released from prison after he was sentenced to six years for aggravated assault and battery. This is fitting since America has twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population-or 2.3 million denizens behind bars. The prison warden, after making the obligatory statement for a warden that, “if I had my way, none of you assholes would ever get out. We’d drop you in the hold and forget you”, he imparts the bad news that Shadow’s wife, Laura had died earlier that morning in an automobile accident.  This start is an excellent foundation for a traditional story of the prisoner integrating into society again.
If you have managed to avoid the accolades surrounding American Gods since it came out in 2001, you might expect the storyline to shoot off into the well worn trench of former-bad-guy trying to make good in a tough world, the integrating into society plot. American Gods does not go there. Instead, it quickly becomes evident that this story is wrapping itself around a more metaphorical slice of reality. It is the force of emotion-love, hate, fear, self-doubt-that propels action, not logical responses to daily mediocrity. The plot of American Gods is very nicely summarized in Wikipedia.
Shadow, the protagonist, is an everyman. Oafish looking. Inept by appearance. Upon release from prison, he sinks into a stream of self-pity from which he bobs up for air only when tasked by his new employer, a smooth talking confidence man called Mr. Wednesday. His fixation upon his dead wife, killed in that car accident while performing oral sex on his best friend, Robbie, is a constant through much of the story. It is only when he decides to honor a commitment he inadvertently made to Wednesday that he breaks the fixation.
What exactly is the commitment Shadow made to Mr. Wednesday and why does Shadow remain in Wednesday’s employ through so much adversity? This is the question in the back of your mind as you read the story. The motivation of Shadow is indeed rather fuzzy. The drinking of mead Mr. Wednesday’s mead is supposedly what sealed Shadow’s fate. But was it really?
This is one of those stories in which you become hooked because all the usual plot questions do not have the usual plot answers. From the time Mr. Wednesday taps his black Rolex and informs Shadow that he is late in boarding the plane to the recurring dread by Shadow that a storm was approaching, we feel, rather than know, that an end is coming.
American Gods is like the frame and canvas of a painting. There is color, there are the contours of shapes. But nothing is really definitive. In the more mundane, mechanistic sense, the characters are all representative of mythological beings–gods. But the characters plopped onto the canvas of this story are mere shading. As in all good stories of this type, it is the reader who flushes outs the meaning of events. It is work. Some readers are willing to the task; others not. If you are, you will enjoy this book.
There is talk of American Gods being turned into an HBO TV series for 2013 with the author, Neil Gaiman participating in the production.
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