There are two landscapes in American Gods. In a story that takes us through the mundane and the mystical, Neil Gaiman explores the history of folklore and the Americans who’ve abandoned said folklore, which isn’t going to go quietly into the night.
Shadow is a convict who’s just finished his term in prison, only to discover that his wife Laura has died and he’s out of a job. An offer by the enigmatic hustler known as Mr. Wednesday gives Shadow new prospects, taking him on a journey across the Midwest. But Shadow is soon awoken to a deeper reality: a world of old and new gods, all fighting for dominance in the modern age, all trying to stay relevant after centuries of spiritual decay. His road takes him through small towns, the walking dead, and old gods doing odd jobs, all in a bitter attempt to make a living and understand what’s really going on.
Shadow is an appropriate name for our protagonist because there isn’t much personality to him. Not that it’s a bad thing. He has a simple resolve to do his job for Mr. Wednesday and figure out what to do with his life after prison and his wife’s death. He’s a mirror to the rest of the world, which is both familiar and bizarre.
As I said before, there are two landscapes in this novel. The first landscape is Middle America, as seen through the eyes of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday in the course of their road trip. There are funeral homes and diners, roadside attractions and cheap motels. The road is long and bleak, but the folks are mostly decent. But Shadow sees past this thin layer of reality into the second landscape, populated by old gods and folk spirits trying to grab some power in the New World, disguising themselves as ordinary people of every color and class. Jesus is hitchhiking through Afghanistan. The leprechaun is a mad wino who does coin tricks. Anubis embalms corpses for a living at a funeral parlor. At the heart of this story is a struggle for the mystical and mythical beings to take back the mundane world that once belonged to them, to take back power from modern-day objects of worship. And a strong-bodied ex-convict is all that stands in their way.
Gaiman writes the story in a dry but evocative style, leaving more to the imagination instead of filling in endless details. He keeps the reader rooted in a familiar modern setting with only the occasional bizarre sight (like a reanimated corpse or sex with an Egyptian cat goddess). Except for a few moments where some of the characters would ramble in a genial Midwestern style, I didn’t lose my attention too much. It reads a lot like On The Road, cruising along except for the occasional roadside attraction and theophany.
Bibliography: Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. New York: William Morrow, 2001.