Neil Gaiman, American Gods: Tenth Anniversary Edition (2011 [orig. 2001]) (7/27/17)Last month I wrote about my intention to read some long books. I started with American Gods partly because, at 742 loosely leaded trade-paperback pages, it's the shortest of the long books I have on my stack.
And what a book it is! Gaiman's imagination is staggering. Makes me glad I don't live in his head—and/or, it makes me wonder what it's like to live in his head, whether or not he's not actively writing a tour-de-force full of gods and otherworldly landscapes, warfare and strange comforts.
The book essentially tells of a road trip, in which the hapless hero, Shadow, released early from prison having learned his wife has been killed, is taken under the wing of the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, an omniscient one-eyed grifter. Who, it turns out, is Odin, trying to enlist the "old gods," largely forgotten in modern-day America, to fight an underworld battle against the gods of the new, "gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone . . . gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon,'' who are ''puffed up with their own newness and importance.''
Along the way we meet such mythical figures as Czernobog and Belobog, the Slavic gods of darkness and of light, and their relatives the Zorya sisters, representing morning, evening, and night; Anansi (Mr. Nancy), an African trickster spider-man; the undertakers Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel, a.k.a. Thoth (Egyptian god of knowledge and writing) and Anubis (god of the dead); Easter, or Ēostre, Germanic goddess of the dawn; Wisakedjak (Whiskey Jack), a trickster figure from Algonquian mythology; Loki, the Old Norse god of mischief—he likes to sow chaos; Kali (Mama-Ji), the Hindu goddess of time and destruction; and Hinzelmann, a kobold, or Germanic sprite.
We also meet their adversaries, the Technical Boy, Media, the Black Hats, and the Intangibles.
Here's a scene from early in the book, where the Technical Boy lays out the apparent divide:
The glinting fiber-optic lights inside the limo continued to change, cycling through their set of dim colors. It seemed to Shadow that the boy's eyes were glinting too, the green of an antique computer monitor.And here, from later in the book, is a conversation with Whiskey Jack:
"You tell Wednesday this, man. You tell him he's history. He's forgotten. He's old. And he better accept it. Tell him that we are the future and we don't give a fuck about him or anyone like him. His time is over. Yes? You fucking tell him that, man. He has been consigned to the Dumpster of history while people like me ride our limos down the superhighway of tomorrow."
"I'll tell him," said Shadow. He was beginning to feel light-headed. He hoped that he was not going to be sick.
"Tell him that we have fucking reprogrammed reality. Tell him that language is a virus and that religion is an operating system and that prayers are just so much fucking spam. Tell him that or I'll fucking kill you," said the young man mildly, from the smoke.
"Got it," said Shadow. "You can let me out here. I can walk the rest of the way."
The young man nodded. "Good talking to you," he said. The smoke had mellowed him. "You should know that if we do fucking kill you then we'll just delete you. You got that? One click and you're overwritten with random ones and zeros. Undelete is not an option." He tapped on the window behind him. "He's getting off here," he said. Then he turned back to Shadow, pointed to his cigarette. "Synthetic toad-skins," he said. "You know they can synthesize bufotenin now?"
. . . The inside of the car was now one writhing cloud of smoke in which two lights glinted, copper-colored, like the beautiful eyes of a toad. "It's all about the dominant fucking paradigm, Shadow. Nothing else is important. . . ."
"Look," said Whiskey Jack. "This is not a good country for gods. My people figured that out early on. There are creator spirits who found the earth or made it or shit it out, but you think about it, who's going to worship Coyote? He made love to Porcupine Woman and got his dick shot through with more needles than a pincushion. He'd argue with rocks and the rocks would win.But the overall plot, the impending war, is really only part of the fascination of this novel. It's a romp, at turns comic, mystical, magical, sinister, and serious. This is storytelling at its best. And as things turn out, the old gods remain with us. Along with the new.
"So, yeah, my people figure that maybe there's something at the back of it all, a creator, a great spirit, and so we say thank you to it, because it's always good to say thank you. But we never built churches We didn't need to. The land was the church. The land was the religion. The land was older and wiser than the people who walked on it. It gave us salmon and corn and buffalo and passenger pigeons. It gave us wild rice and walleye. It gave us melon and squash and turkey. And we were the children of the land, just like the porcupine and the skunk and the blue jay."
He finished his second beer and gestured toward the river at the bottom of the waterfall. "You follow that river for a way, you'll get to the lakes where the wild rice grows. In wild rice time, you go out in your canoe with a friend, and you knock the wild rice into your canoe, and cook it, and store it, and it will keep you for a long time. Different places grow different foods. Go far enough south there are orange trees, lemon trees, and those squashy green guys, look like pears—"
"Avocados," agreed Whiskey Jack. "That's them. They don't grow up this way. This is wild rice country. Moose country. What I'm trying to say is that America is like that. It's not good growing country for gods. They don't grow well here. They're like avocados trying to grow in wild rice country."
"They may not grow well," said Shadow, remembering, "but they're going to war."
That was the only time he ever saw Whiskey Jack laugh. It was almost a bark, and it had little humor in it. "Hey, Shadow," said Whiskey Jack. "If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump off too?"
"Maybe." Shadow felt good. He didn't think it was just the beer. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt so alive, and so together.
"It's not going to be a war."
"Then what is it?"
Whiskey Jack crushed the beer can between his hands, pressing it until it was flat. "Look," he said and pointed to the waterfall. The sun was high enough that it caught the waterfall spray: a rainbow nimbus hung in the air. Shadow thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
"It's going to be a bloodbath," said Whiskey Jack, flatly.
Shadow saw it then. He saw it all, stark in its simplicity. He shook his head, then he began to chuckle, and he shook his head some more, and the chuckle became a full-throated laugh.
"I'm fine," said Shadow. . . . "It's a two-man con. . . . It's not a war at all, is it?"
Whiskey Jack patted Shadow's arm. "You're not so dumb," he said.
Again I shake my head and wonder what the heck it's like to live in Neil Gaiman's head.
And now, I think I'll go read something short. Gotta charge my batteries before the next big book.