by Neil Gaiman
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The mixture of many different cultures has traditionally been considered one of the strengths of the United States of America. Immigrants have been coming to North America since long before the country was established and have brought their customs and beliefs with them. Neil Gaiman takes a look at these traditional beliefs and the folklore which is replacing them in the beginning of the twenty-first century in his exploration of middle America, American Gods.
Gaiman's everyman is Shadow, who begins the novel a week before his release from prison on unspecified charges. Shadow's plans to return to his wife and a job working for his best friend are sidetracked when he finds himself on a plane next to a mysterious stranger who only gives his names as Mr. Wednesday. It quickly becomes apparent that Wednesday is, in reality, the Norse god Odin, who is recruiting the other gods whose believers have settled across the United States at one time or another to go to war against the up-and-coming gods who are vying for the minds of the citizenry.
In Gaiman's world, once the gods arrive in America, they remain, growing weaker as their believers die out or turn to other deities or beliefs, an idea which is known as henotheism. His shadow world is populated by a mixture of Norse, Egyptian, Chinese, Native American, and other gods, each brought by successive waves of immigrants going back to Nunyunnini, a mammoth skull covered by a cloak and worships by a nomadic tribe in 14,000 BC. With all these gods walking around, it might seem logical that Gaiman was talking about religion, however religion does not play a major role in Gaiman's novel. Instead, he focuses on the beliefs of Americans, who, in his opinion, seem to be turning their backs on their traditional gods for the novel. By turning their backs on the gods, Americans are not becoming atheistic, but rather are deifying commerce, technology, communication, and other forces which are as important to modern life as agriculture and war were to earlier generations.
North America is also festooned with points of power, although they are not always as obvious as one would think. Focus points include the House on the Rock in Wisconsin, the geographic center of the United States in Kansas (although the geographic center of North America would have made more sense) and Mount Rushmore, although not because of anything Borglum did to the mountain. What is interesting about Gaiman selection of locations, for both points of power and his story, is how little occurs on the coasts. To Gaiman, the heartland seems to be where the core of belief in America exists, a belief which has little to do with the Bible Belt which crosses the path his characters travel.
The one major deity who appears to be absent in the book is Jesus, although Shadow eventually takes on Messianic attributes which serve not only to remind the reader of the predominant religion in the country, but also how much Christian symbolism is shared by other folkloric cycles. The inclusion of Shadow in a Messianic role underscores the fact that as beliefs change, portions of the older belief is retained, thereby preserving some memory, even if unconscious, of the previous belief.
By focusing his attention on the older gods, Gaiman gives his story a dark feel. These are gods who, for all the glorious stories which have been handed down about them, revel in the idea of battle and yearn for blood, and other, sacrifice to be made to them. While representing the best of traditional values, they also embody the worst, often in ways which are not readily apparent. The dichotomy presented is so consistent throughout the various pantheons Gaiman includes that it is obvious that whichever set of gods win the battle, the outcome will have little affect.
Gaiman's descriptions and use of language are lyrical, bringing to mind the very epics and legends which encapsulate the doings of the gods he depicts. His America is intriguing as good co-exists with evil, peace with war. His village of Lakeside, where Shadow hides from the forces of the new gods, is a peaceful town which upon closer scrutiny reveals itself to be every bit as strange as Twin Peaks, Washington from the David Lynch television series.
American Gods is a novel of intricate ideas which are presented smoothly and capably. Neil Gaiman examines not only the system of belief in America, but also the dark underside of America which Americans would prefer remain hidden from view. His characters are interesting and well-developed with few of them being what they appear to be on first, or even second, glance. American Gods may be one of the best and most original fantasy novels to be published in years.
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