book review

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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American Gods is the book you hand to adults when they say that reading doesn’t feel as fun as it did when they were children. It has the whimsical fantasy that immersed us as kids, with all of the additional things we need as grownups: philosophical ponderings, marriage, sex, and a hearty dose of corny jokes.

Shadow has recently been let out of prison, and now he’s been recruited as Mr. Wednesday’s errand boy, helping Mr. Wednesday – some old god – prepare for the upcoming war against the new gods of television, freeways, and tech. What I most loved about the premise was how thoroughly fantastical it is: All the gods exist, and they’re about to fight a war. But interlaced with that is how dryly real it is: The gods are only as powerful as people believe they are. So the Egyptian gods of death are stuck running an old funeral parlor in Illinois, and Arabian genies are driving taxis in Manhattan. Nothing much to boast about.

“You are Horus.”

The madman nodded. “Horus,” he said. “I am the falcon of the morning, the hawk of the afternoon. I am the sun, as you are. And I know the true name of Ra. My mother told me.”

“That’s great,” said Shadow, politely.

I’ve never read anything with precisely this mix of fantasy and realism: It’s not merely that it takes place in the real world – plenty of fantasies do that – but that Neil Gaiman spends just as much time on the real as he does on the magical. And it makes the magical that much realer.

“I think I would rather be a man than a god. We don’t need anyone to believe in us. We just keep going anyhow. It’s what we do.”

The main character Shadow is a sturdy, lovable man with a sense of what I’m going to call American morality: His “right” is simple and noble and admirable, and he will reliably choose “right” every time. He was the perfect character to send on a road trip down this hazy dream world, because the reader absolutely believes in him: his trips to Midwestern diners, his run-down car, his freezing apartment, his being hunted by evil gods.

I read the 10th anniversary edition, which includes 12,000 more words than the 2001 edition. I’d be curious to read the version that was originally published, as I did feel the pacing was slow and plenty of scenes unnecessary. Interspersed around the main plot is a collection of short stories about the old gods coming to America. All of these stories could be taken out and would in no way affect Shadow’s main plotline. But that was part of what I loved about this book: It is precisely the kind of indulgent doorstopper I need in the dead of winter. Sprawling, meandering, enjoyable. I could have read about Shadow’s diner meals and the arrivals of the gods for 500 more pages.

But I loved the thrilling bits, too, the times when it turned into a page turner. I loved Shadow’s love for his late wife, and her love for him. I found this book terribly romantic. I loved Shadow’s bromance with Mr. Wednesday, lopsided and jaded as that relationship was.

This was just a book packed full of magic and warmth, possibility and humanity, humor and wit, and I can’t think of any kind of book I would more like to read.

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