Neil Gaiman has something of a reputation in geek circles, but ironically it has little to do with his Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel American Gods. That’s a shame, because setting aside Gaiman’s well earned acclaim as the writer of the exemplary fantasy comic series Sandman, American Gods is a stunning example of what contemporary mythical fantasy fiction can achieve.
In simplest terms, American Gods is a gothic horror road trip novel, serving as equal parts Stephen King and Joseph Campbell. Yet, if it were just that, we could thank Gaiman for a quaint fusion of styles and be on to the next “concept” fantasy novel. What sets American Gods apart and earned this book so many accolades is that Gaiman goes out of his way to write his novel the hard way, ignoring all the easy Dickensian/Dean Koontz tricks that could have easily shown up in a book like this. Along the way, Gaiman celebrates the unique elements of Americana that simply don’t exist elsewhere–the roadside attractions and hidden worlds that thrive only in the corners of a nation built around highways–while avoiding the easy icons of New York, Los Angeles, and the other major cities we’re used to seeing on TV.
Gaiman sets out to explore and celebrate America through the lens of ancient cultural myth. Not American myths, but everyone else’s. Gaiman examines how and why Norse, Egyptian, African, Celtic, Slavic and dozens of other mythologies could never thrive in the cultural melting pot of America by employing a Joss Whedon-esque lens–he makes the mythical characters real people, and shows how they are struggling to survive in the New World when facing competition from not just American cultural icons, but the character of America itself. Like all old paradigms, the imported European gods and monsters refuse to go without a fight, and the plot of the novel follows these creatures as they gather their forces for one last stand against modernity.
The main protagonist of American Gods is an ex-con and widower named Shadow, whose real name we never learn (a tough trick to maintain over 600 pages) and whose background is so thoroughly unexplained that he’s a cipher. Also, he does coin magic tricks, and his dead wife is now a zombie that follows him around the country. By all rights, the reader should never be invested in Shadow, never find him believable, and never take the plot conceit at face value–but Gaiman pulls it off, strictly through the strength of his prose. The antagonists are far more well rounded and grounded as characters, except for the fact that they’re all culled from ancient myth.
Gaiman also doesn’t waste time explaining who any of the supernatural characters are–there are no proverbial info-dumps of thick exposition recounting cliff-notes mythology–so you either know the cultures Gaiman is referencing or you don’t. If you don’t recognize the names Odin, Osiris, or Compe Anansi, however, it’s not really a problem. Gaiman does enough to make them all believable in their own right, without ever resorting to back-of-the-baseball-card rundowns on each character’s origin. Again, Gaiman wrote this the hard way.
American Gods isn’t a pop-fantasy novel that can be easily digested or read in one easy sitting. It aims for far more literary weight than that, taking on heady themes and harsh ideas by way of a fantastic premise. Gaiman is British, with a vaunted love of European history, so in many ways this novel is his love-letter to America. The Old World, struggling to find a place in the vibrant, vicious land of the New. It’s a novel that asks a lot of its reader, but like the long, arduous trek catalogued in the book, it’s a trip worth making.