Shadow is having a bad day. Just out of prison, he learns that his wife, Laura, and the source of the job he’d counted on, his friend Rob, are both dead. A nasty storm keeps diverting or delaying planes as he tries to get home for the funeral. And a strange fellow named “Wednesday” persists in offering him employment.
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods has a fascinating premise; gods require worship the way people require air and water. Without the attention and adulation of the believer, gods simply fade away—and the old-world gods who came to the New World in the hearts of immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa are in a bad way. They’re being supplanted by new American gods.
The literal storm that diverts Shadow’s plane is matched by the metaphysical storm that’s coming. Shadow is swept up in the tricky maneuvers of Grimnir One-Eye, who cons and cheats everyone he encounters. When Shadow’s dead wife Laura shows up, her cold animated corpse confronts him with his own unfeeling nature; Shadow might as well be sleep-walking, for all the involvement he has in his own life. He seems to follow Wednesday passively, allowing the older god to direct his actions as a way of avoiding choice. Yet in the coming battle of gods, Shadow will be required to make the most difficult of choices.
The new gods are easy to identify: Media wears the faces of Lucy Ricardo and Katie Couric; Technology Boy is a pimply, circuitry-for-brains geek; a literally-unnoticeable entity embodies Gambling. For the older gods, it helps to have read The Golden Bough, Frazier’s great comparative-religion compilation, although Ibis and Jackal, Horus and Easter, “Mama-Ji” Kali, Medusa, and various Norns and Fates are recognizable. Gaiman does not short us on the lesser-known boggarts and heroes, either. Sooner or later, every mythological creature you’ve ever heard of (and more than one that you haven’t) comes into the story.
Gaiman weaves the tangled stories of all these gods and their histories into a complex braid, then whips it around into a hangman’s noose. And if important characters die in the telling of the tale; well, resurrection is expected of a god.
American Gods is a dark romp, surprising in the way a good mystery ought to be (but often is not), with plenty of unexpected twists to keep the reader guessing. Wonderful!