I was introduced to Neil Gaiman by way of The Sandman in high school, and it opened up this whole other world of literature and media to me. I went from being purely classic rock and sword and sorcery to moody alternative, 80s post-punk, horror and dark fantasy literature, cult film and banned books. The repurposing of ancient myth and legend, the darkness and humor of that series, as well as Neverwhere and Stardust, changed everything for me, and opened me up to the wider world. I hope that I’ve written and read enough now that my Gaiman influence isn’t quite as blatant as it was back then, but he is still, obviously, foundational. And, as I found with this second reading of American Gods, still very much a pleasure to read.
The basic plot follows Shadow who, immediately after being released from prison, is dragged more or less against his will into a world of gods and monsters that overlays the more mundane world he left. Shadow has a job to do, but he’s not exactly sure what it is, and meanwhile grifter gods and unemployed magical beings are forming a conspiracy around him, his dead wife is warning him that a war is coming, and his television is offering to show him Lucille Ball’s tits. It’s a dark, fantastic story set against the grim realities of contemporary American life, while in the interludes, the entire history of humans and their gods on the North American continent unfolds, revealing the often gruesome depths beneath the surface of the tale.
The idea of ordinary people finding themselves a part of extraordinary events is a staple of fantasy literature, and has been a favorite of mine since Bruce Coville’s My Teacher is an Alien and Gordon R. Dickson’s The Dragon and the George. Something about being whisked away from an ordinary life to a fantastic world of alien conspiracies and dragon knights strongly appealed to my teenage self, who often wished, as adolescence wore on, that he would be abducted by space pirates. Gaiman’s stories, however, took this teenage fantasy and matured it, allowing me to see the darker side of losing everything one thought was true. For Shadow, like Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere, the magical world in which he finds himself upsets his sense of self and his view of the world, and puts him in terrible danger. Unlike Mayhew, however, his loss isn’t abrupt. Shadow has been in prison for five years. When he emerges, the world he thought he’d come back to simply isn’t there.
Shadow sort of holds our proxy in exploring the hidden, magical America revealed here. He goes where Wednesday tells him to go, and with few exceptions, does only what he is told to do. When he gets into trouble, which is often in this unfamiliar world, he needs rescuing, usually by his wife, Laura, who in undeath is capable of seemingly terrific violence. But this isn’t to say that Shadow is some kind of everyman character. He’s pretty far from it, in fact. Shadow’s greatest strength is his essential selfhood, which protects him and draws people to him. His apparent lack of agency is a defensive reaction to the loss of everything he knows, but he maintains a quiet strength and sense of decency that keeps your sympathy with him as he passes through scenes of wonder and horror. In the end, those essential qualities and the friends and allies he gathers along the way, from young hitchhikers to mad sun gods, are the power with which he faces the dramatic confrontation in the story’s climax.
This America, filled with gods and monsters, is beautiful, even at its most terrible. Some of the most striking sensory images come from nearly freezing to death, or the appalling effects of severe deprivation, or the kiss of Shadow’s dead wife after a cigarette. But there are other, more enchanting things as well, like the moonlit scene on the roof with Zorya Poluchnaya, or the strange vision of the world backstage. I’ve always appreciated Gaiman’s ability to make terror, horror, and strangeness beautiful. He creates a world that is strange and terrifying, and makes me want to live there. I remember wanting to step through a door and into London Below at the end of Neverwhere, or to find a Wall to cross like Tristan in Stardust. I wanted to believe in the Endless, and by the end of American Gods, I wanted to believe that if I looked closely enough, asked all the questions that Shadow didn’t, I could find the secret magic underlying the world. Gaiman’s writing makes me feel like I could touch magic, and I think that’s why it’s always been compelling to me. American Gods, even more than the others, makes magic gritty and real, something touchable if you just know the trick of it, like pulling a golden coin from thin air.
Shadow’s journey is mythic and contemporary in equal measure, and the characters he meets along the way, gods and mortals, are genuine and memorable. Gaiman’s imagery creates an immersive, magical world that I want to live in despite its terrors and quiet horrors. While I think Neverwhere might still be the secret world I hold the most affection for, American Gods feels richer and deeper, with so much to talk about in individual chapters and scenes that I found it hard to decide what to discuss for this review. The quiet magic of the Lakeside chapters or the ecstatic vision of Shadow’s vigil? The unexpected and brutal heroism of Laura or the charming, subtle villainy of Mr. Wednesday? What about the many interludes and what they reveal about the larger world of the novel? The story rewards close reading while also being just a pleasure to read. Through Shadow, Gaiman reveals the gods to us, the old and new magic, and the secrets rooted in the history of the land and its people. That’s why he remains one of my favorite writers, and why his influence lingers in my own writing, despite all the other books I’ve read since.