Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I have a particular weakness for irreverent humor, satire, and surreality, so when I was recommended to read American Gods by Neil Gaiman I was agreeable. I had loved Sandman and his joint-venture with Terry Pratchett in Good Omens. However, I was surprised and found myself eagerly devouring this novel because it was unique, not many books are able incorporate mythology, satire, and humor so successfully.

As always, Gaiman brings together an adventure that matches wit and fantasy with mythological themes and contemporary storytelling. In the heartlands of America, its settlers and immigrants brought with them the beliefs and myths of their homelands. Those gods and other mystical creatures from folklore and mythology are now living amongst us, getting by and dealing with the day-to-day issues all mortals face...mortgages, money, death, and taxes.

It is this world to which an ex-con, Shadow, is slowly introduced as he takes employment with a mysterious man named, Mr. Wednesday. Here he meets a drunk leprechaun, talking animals from old folk stories, and a cacophony of deities as he helps his employer gather up the old gods in a defensive bid against the rise of the new gods of modern America such as the internet, credit cards, and media, Shadow finds himself a pawn in a very dangerous game.

This book was a particularly good fit for me because I have often wondered what the gods would be doing after their worshippers have moved on. Are there laundromats on Mt. Olympus? What about child support and parking tickets? Some situations were exactly what I would have pictured if you were immortal and accustomed to performing particular tasks. For instance, if you were to deal with and judge the dead, like the Ibis and Jackal, what other profession would you turn to but running a funeral home?

On the whole the novel progressed smoothly through the plot. Only a few chapters interrupted the flow. These occasional interruptions were origin tales describing an Old World god’s introduction to America. On their own, they were intelligent and gripping, I would have loved to learn more about Odin, or the woman who brought the Little Folk with her from Ireland. As part of a whole, they simply broke my immersion in Shadow’s story and served no clear narrative purpose. You would be reading along minding your own business and then a new chapter would be come up and it would feel as if was a completely different story tucked in the middle. Perhaps if they were presented in a different way it wouldn’t have felt so out of place.

Gaiman's tale was easily read and pulled you along an engaging adventure. To see these once-great beings acting just like regular people down on their luck gave the book just the right amount of irony and humor without it being preachy, corny, or even religious. I was pleased that American Gods features increasingly odd and surreal moments that made me eagerly turn each page to see what happens next. Ultimately, what won me over was that the characters were created in such a vivid way and with such unique personalities that despite the possibility of being conned, robbed, killed, or blessed, I would love the chance to meet any of them on the street one day. I would just watch my wallet and perhaps how much everyone’s been drinking!

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