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Book Review: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman


What happens when the idols are no longer active and the idol worshippers are all dead? This is the conversation while driving home from seeing The Pixies at The House of Blues in Boston.

Take Bob Mould. He may still be an idol of 80s alternative rockers, but how much longer will that subculture exist? In a short time, the college radio jockeys of the mid-80s will be dead. Who will remember Mould and his contributions, his influence? Niche music bloggers and a handful musicphiles, sure, but the mainstream has forgotten—if they ever even knew.

The act of worship assigns power. What happens when the gods have fallen from lack of worship? What new gods will rise to take their place? American Gods by Neil Gaiman, examines this topic.

American Gods opens in a prison. Shadow, our protagonist, is let out early because, the warden tells him, his wife, Laura, is dead. Later we learn that Laura has been having an affair with Shadow's best friend. Prison sentences strain even the best of marriages.

On his way to his wife's funeral, Shadow's adventure truly begins. Shadow meets an old, roguish gentleman named Wednesday and eventually accepts a job as his body guard. Together, they criss-cross the country, embarking on a series of meetings with Wednesday's associates: an elderly Eastern European family, Mr. Ibis, and Mr. Jacqel, among others. Although it takes Shadow an astonishingly long time to figure it out, Wednesday is the Norse god Odin, and his associates are also gods. Wednesday and his fellow god friends have a problem: they have been forgotten by their followers, rendering them too weak to fight against the new gods, who are rising to power and plotting a full takeover.

The new gods represent American culture as it is today: removed from the gods and goddesses of the old world to instead worship at the altars of credit, market forces, and technology. "Media", goddess of television, takes many forms but first appears to Shadow as "Lucy" while he watches "I Love Lucy" from a hotel room.

"Who are you?" asked Shadow.
"Okay," she said. "Good question. I'm the idiot box. I'm the TV. I'm the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I'm the boob tube. I'm the little shrine the family gathers to adore."

My favorite new god, "The Technical Boy", the god of the Internet, is a fat, obnoxious basement-dweller who dresses like a cast-off from The Matrix. (We all know the type.) These new gods are powerful because they have the hearts and minds of their followers--something the old gods no longer have.

The new gods warn Shadow against siding with the old. A storm is coming, they say. A storm indeed: with Shadow's assistance, Wednesday seeks to unify the old gods for a final showdown with the new.

So much of this book is excellent: it is fun, fast-paced, and every time you figure out a reference to an old god without consulting Bulfinch's Mythology, you feel good inside.

Gaiman had obviously done his mid-western America research before sitting down to write, crafting a believable setting. (For those who don't know, Gaiman is British). American Gods is a fantastical American road trip, filled with the hidden secrets your mind suspects exist in the desert, in the small towns of the midwest, in the dusty brick buildings our old urban neighborhoods.

For all there is to like about this book, one flaw remains: several critical scenes leave out key details, forcing the reader into suspended disbelief or momentarily jarring us out of the story. The scene that most exemplifies this takes place on a carousel that transports Wednesday, Shadow, and friends between our world and that of the gods. Try as I might, I can't reconcile this awesome power with the idea that these gods are supposedly weak. These jarring moments feel lazy on the part of the author -- you are 600 pages deep, man. Why not just explain it?

Be they old gods, new gods, or rock gods, do our idols exist because they are worshipped? If you've ever asked yourself this question or enjoy the Great American Road Trip, I recommend American Gods for a satisfying story in an eerily familiar setting.

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