I watched the first season American Gods on Starz back in the day, and I really enjoyed it but never bothered with the rest of the series once I heard that the show runner and several stars were out of the project. I’ve had the novel on my shelf ever since, but its length (500+ pages) was a little off-putting. It’s a funny thing though that the “long” stories are often the ones that read the fastest while the “short” ones can be a slog. American Gods is a very interesting tale with several intersecting stories that span thousands of years and a variety of cultures. Given the subject of the novel — what happens to gods/belief when the believers migrate to new lands — there was a danger of cultural insensitivity but I think Gaiman by and large avoids this and demonstrates respect and appreciation for his subjects.
The main character is a twenty-something named Shadow Moon. Shadow is finishing up his time in prison and longs to return home to Illinois and his wife Laura. Yet he has a nagging feeling that a storm is on the horizon, that something ominous awaits him and sure enough, Shadow is released early because his wife has died in an accident. As Shadow makes his way home to bury Laura, he keeps encountering a strange man, older, well dressed and charming, who wants very much to give Shadow a job as his driver and assistant. When Shadow discovers that his old job and his reasons for staying in Illinois are gone, he takes up the man’s offer. His name is Mr. Wednesday but he has many aliases including Odin. Wednesday explains to Shadow that a war is brewing between the old gods like himself (and Easter, Bilquis, Anansi, Czernobog, Ibis, Mad Sweeney, etc.) and the new gods, like Media and Technology. Wednesday is trying to round up the old gods and get them to work together to save themselves and defeat their enemy. A number of obstacles stand in the way, though. First, many of the old gods don’t want to fight; sure, their lives are far less exciting since they have lost most of their followers over the centuries, but life isn’t terrible and some have reason to be suspicious of Wednesday. The other obstacle is that the new gods seem to have support from government-based operatives, “men in black” who drive unmarked cars and can track their adversaries well. Shadow seems to be of particular interest to the new gods and the government goons, placing him in a very dangerous position as the two sides approach the brink of war.
Themes running through this novel include deception, belief and redemption. Shadow spent a good amount of time while in prison learning slight of hand and coin tricks, and Wednesday is a master con artist. Laura Moon deceived Shadow during her life, and even though she is dead, she is able to walk about and talk thanks to a seemingly random and harmless act of Shadow’s. Shadow, even when deceived by those closest to him, still wants to believe that there is something redeemable in them, that they are not all bad. While working for Wednesday, he is told that he is not paid to ask questions, just to drive and do the jobs he is given, and to wait patiently when Wednesday is off on his own. That is a pretty good description of the life of a believer in any faith, I think. But Shadow has his own nagging questions — about Laura, about his increasingly strange and vivid dreams, and about Wednesday’s relationships with the various communities that he plants Shadow in. The end of this novel, when the various threads come together, is actually pretty great.
American Gods is a complex yet entertaining story that goes in to some really deep philosophical questions: do gods only exist in the minds and creativity of humans? Is there some greater force out there beyond humans, gods and so on? Is death the end or a beginning? The quest continues.