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American Gods

Neil Gaiman

WM Morrow

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-3808-97365-0

$26.00; 465 pages

Publication Date: 06-19-2001

Review Date: 07-05-01 (Updated 07-12-04)

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2001



Fantasy, Horror

10-08-02, 12-13-02, 03-26-03, , 09-13-03, 07-12-04, 12-31-04

Somewhere between the pigeonholes of Mainstream Horror and Magic Realism, Niel Gaiman wants to give old gods a new, though low life. In his latest novel 'American Gods', he meanders a bit in the doing, but by and large suceeds, and not in small part because of the long journey he chooses. Filled with great writing, good characters and a road trip narrative, 'American Gods' delivers a large dose of what his fans have come to expect -- comedic surreal fun with a dark edge.

Gaiman's thesis is simple: when the immigrants came to America, they brought their gods and daemons with them. Alas, these are hard times for the old gods, who are no longer the subject of a passing thought, let alone worship and sacrifice. They live their lives disguised as grifters and small time crooks, hidden in the corners of America where no one is looking. Gaiman's development of this theme is impressive, giving the reader a huge dose of displaced mythology, mixed with humor and Americana that is in fact purely American, even though Gaiman himself is a displaced Brit, come to seek his fortunes in the movie business.

'American Gods' begins when a man known as Shadow is released from prison, after spending three years for driving a getaway car. His wife has been killed, his job is gone and he meets a man called Wednesday who offers him employment. But Wednesday's first scam is the illusion that he is a man. The scams pile on, one after another, as Wednesday employs Shadow as a bodyguard to offer protection from the new, and currently worshipped gods of the Internet, Credit, Shopping Malls and television. Eventually this conflict is resolved, but Shadow and Wednesday don't take the first train to Conflictville. Instead, they hitch a ride out across the country, seeing America in all its shabby glory.

The reader will soon be delighted that they're not getting a series of steadily escalating confrontations. Instead, you get a series of humorous and beautiful vignettes, touched with tenderness and terror. More importantly, you get great prose, the kind of writing that you want to read aloud: "He didn't worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it."

'American Gods' is poised to be Gaiman's breakthrough novel. It popped into the national bestseller lists last week for a moment, and that might be all that is required. Except that this is America, and our attention won't be thoroughly engaged until we see the trailers for the movies based on his novels. Only when 'American Gods' is offered up to the king of the New Gods -- A-list Movies -- are we likely to see the kind of interest in Gaiman that he deserves. From there, it's only a moment until he's discarded by the masses for the next new arrival. Welcome to America, Neil! He's certainly aware that somebody out there loves him.

A recent edition of the novel from small-press publisher Hill House offers an additional forty pages -- 12,000 words -- of new material. The new material was apparently elided from the original edition for space reasons. The new edition is the author's preferred edition. It's pricey but well worth the investment not only for the gorgeous deluxe presentation, but also for the added text. For those who insist on reading the longest possible author-approved version of any entry in an author's catalogue, this will clearly be the preferred edition. The over-the-top boxed edition is accompanied by a sturdy trade paperback reader's copy. Imagine that -- a book for the reader! 'American Gods' truly move in mysterious ways.