American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001) 629 p.

I’ve followed Neil Gaiman’s blog for a long time, finding it interesting to peer into the life of a fairly well-known author, despite the fact that until now I’d never read anything of his except for a handful of Sandman comics (illegally downloaded, no less). I bought American Gods sometime last year, but it kept getting pushed further down my to-be-read pile for various reasons.

And the problem with having a book staring down at you from the shelf for so long is that you develop certain expectations, which are invariably wrong. American Gods wasn’t precisely the kind of book I thought it would be, nor was it quite as good as I thought it would be. I thought it would be a little more… epic, but instead it had quite a casual feel to it, like a run-of-the-mill Stephen King novel from the 90’s.

A few days before his three-year prison sentence is up, Shadow’s wife is killed in a car accident, and he is released early. On the plane on the way home he meets the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job. It soon becomes clear that Wednesday is an old and ancient god, trying to assemble the many other ancient gods, the immigrant gods, against the homegrown American deities representing television, the internet, the media, drugs, cars, shady government agents and every other element of modern American mythology. A battle is coming, and Wednesday wants to win.

The fundamental idea is that gods run on belief – that they need us, not the other way around. If people stop believing in them, they’ll grow weak and eventually cease to exist. It’s a common theme in Terry Pratchett’s work, an author Gaiman has worked with closely in the past, but I don’t know which (if either) of them came up with it. It’s also clearly about immigration – that America is a land of immigrants, from the Muslims and Asians of the 20th century, back through the Eastern Europeans in the 19th, and the African slaves in the 18th, right down to the prehistoric nomads who crossed the Bering Strait, all of them bringing their gods with them. America is a melting pot, and thus we have Norse gods mixing with Hindu gods, Anansi hanging out with Czernobog, Eostre working with Horus.

On the flipside of the coin we have the idea of modern America as a legendary, fantastic place. Neil Gaiman is British, not American, and as such he grew up in a world bombarded with American media and culture, and his ideas about America being a wholly unreal, mythical place struck a chord with my own. There’s a certain power to names like “California” and “Las Vegas” and “New York.” To a foreigner like myself, they’re powerful icons, symbols of something huge and vast and powerful. And that, too, is what American Gods is about: symbols and metaphors and imagery. Because that’s all that religion is, as Shadow says at one point, and if the book wasn’t more than 600 pages long I’d flip through it trying to find the verbatim quote. But this idea felt under-developed; Shadow spends most of the book around Minnesota and Illinois and Wisconsin, that blurry part of the Midwest that is actually the least legendary part of America, the most unknown, the most humdrum and ordinary.

Or maybe that’s just my unfair expectations again.

This is a pretty rambling review; it’s two in the morning and I’m out of practice. Is it a good book? Yes, it is, although not a great book, and I expected it to be. It wasn’t as good as it could have been, given the very interesting ideas it was forged on, but the majority of it was entertaining, albeit it slowly-paced, and the conclusion was wholly unexpected and very satisfying. I also feel like there were a lot of things that weren’t hidden away, not quite obvious, as one would expect from a book about symbols and allegories; my opinion may very well improve after another read. But it’s a thick book, and that to-be-read pile is awfully tall…