I decided that the time had come to read this in preparation for the Starz series, which looks amazing. I'll start by saying that I really liked this book, although I don't think that it has tipped The Graveyard Book out of it's Numero Uno spot as my favorite Gaiman. One of the most noteworthy things about Neil Gaiman is that each of his books is so unique. American Gods is very much an adult novel, and not simply because of the sexual content. The themes are grittier, and it lacks that undercurrent of sweetness that runs throughout The Graveyard Book.
American Gods is ambitious, setting out to do nothing less than put gods in the context of America. The book begins with an epigraph:
One question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands. Irish-Americans remember the fairies, Norwegian-Americans the nisser, Greek-Americans the vrykólakas, but only in relation to events remembered in the Old Country. When I once asked why such demons are not seen in America, my informants giggled confusedly and said “They’re scared to pass the ocean, it’s too far,” pointing out that Christ and the apostles never came to America.
At the end of the book, Gaiman mentions that the question he's never been asked, that he thought he would be asked, was "How dare you." But the "how dare you" isn't the one that I personally expected, in the sense of "how dare you be such a heretic, talking about small g gods in the old U.S. of A, the most Christian nation in the world," but the question was "how dare you - as someone who is not an American - write a book about America.
I don't have a problem with the idea of Gaiman - someone who very much stands outside of America - writing a road trip novel set in America. I think he did a terrific job of getting at some of what makes America inexplicably different:
"No, in the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat-house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”
I'm not sure, are we the only place with roadside attractions? The corn palace, the Wall Drug, the bizarre shrines that pop up in the middle of nowhere, where people towing travel trailers stop in enormous parking lots to buy tiny commemorative spoons, paperweights and elephant ears? Maybe. I thought that aspect of the book was simply wonderful.
And, I loved the old gods. This was a whirlwind tour of folklore and myth, with Whiskey Jack, Czernobog and Mr. Nancy. Reading the book on kindle was tremendously helpful to me - I could highlight a name and wikipedia would whip out an entry that gave me an origin and a basic outline of the myth. Gaiman's creative use of non-standard mythology was inspired. I also enjoyed the roadtrip with Shadow - this book unfolds in layers, peeling back one at a time.
There were, however, two areas that I felt like the book struggled. First, while the old guys were drawn with depth and drama and pathos and humor, the new gods were . . . not.
“Now, as all of you will have had reason aplenty to discover for yourselves, there are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit-card and freeway, of internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance."
Perhaps that was Gaiman's point: what we worship now, in 21st century America, is all flashing lights and emptiness. But, I have to say, there was nothing about the new gods that convinced me that they were actually being worshiped. If the gods come into being and power from belief and sacrifice, then the new gods should have had power. They should've been electric with it. And yet, they were bland and boring and ultimately sterile beings of nothingness. A dead woman dispatched them with ease, and they were outsmarted by the diminishing old gods. The most minor kobold operating in Lakeside had more power than the most powerful new god. And then, what happens when the new gods die? I'd like to know. Did the lights blink out? Did the television go black? Did the credit card machines stop functioning? Or are all of the gods, ultimately, sound and fury signifying nothing? Illusions, brought to life?
And, the other problem that I have with the book - and it's a biggie - is the utter absence of Christianity. Gaiman has him as just a guy walking down a road in Afghanistan. If Americans can conjure a god out of their credit cards simply by believing in them, then it is inconceivable that American Jesus wouldn't have a presence among the American Gods. We are a consumerist society, it is true, and Gaiman nailed that part of us, but we are also a deeply religious society. Much more so than his native England.
For better or for worse, for truth or for lie, for sacred or for profane, for sincerity or hypocrisy, American Jesus was absent from this book and that did not make sense to me. If this book were possible, I would expect there to be a hundred slightly different versions of Jesus presiding over parts of America, like the images in a funhouse mirror receding into mirrored infinity. You'd have your Lutheran Jesus, who eats jello salad with shredded carrots in church basements all around the midwest, and you'd have your angry abortion-clinic-picketing Jesus wandering randomly around the south with a gun, ready to shed blood for the babies, and your capitalist Jesus, dressed in an Armani suit, preaching the virtues of selfishness, a la Ayn Rand, surrounded by acolytes who all resemble Paul Ryan and who can't wait to shove the impoverished Americans out of the lifeboat. Without the many versions of Jesus Christ who are ubiquitous in American religion, the book feels incomplete.
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.”
Gods may not grow well here, but old time religion certainly does, and that was absent from this book. I feel like it should've been in there, although that would've been a dangerous narrative choice for sure. Although anyone who would read this book would have to be willing to tolerate heresy, so I'm not sure that it would've made the book more likely to be controversial.
So, overall, I really liked this book, but I feel like it left some money on the table. It could've been better and didn't fully realize its promise. But it was damned good anyway!