Neil Gaiman,
American Gods
(HarperCollins, 2001)

Belief can create and sustain a god. But belief can be fleeting, lasting for moments or centuries, and gods don't like to yield their existences to humanity's fickle faith.

In American Gods, Neil Gaiman creates not one god, nor a pantheon of gods, but many pantheons -- the echoes of divine spirits and culture heroes who took root in America after migrating in the minds and hearts of countless immigrants. Even now, those gods cling to the last vestiges of faith, piecing together fragments of worship from an easily led human flock.

American Gods is an epic tale, and its protagonist, Shadow, is a modern-day questing hero. Like Odysseus, Shadow's desires are simple -- to return from his labors to his wife and his home. But the gods have other plans for Shadow, and his personal saga will take him through much of America's heartland, to her small towns and roadside attractions, beyond death and into other realms of existence. Along the way, he will meet a great many gods and heroes, shadows of their former selves in the Old Country, each trying in some way to adapt to a modern American life.

They are confronted and confounded by their would-be successors, the new gods of today's society: television, the media, the Internet. And so old gods and new incarnations prepare for war, convinced that there is not enough belief left in the world to sustain them all.

As supernatural as the tale is, the characters are all very real and their plights are affecting. There is much humor in the story, but there is much grimness, too.

American Gods is part road-trip buddy film -- every bit as quirky, every bit as visual -- as Shadow and the mysterious Mr. Wednesday travel the country seeking places of power and recruiting allies. Gaiman puts forth a devilishly convincing theory about the nature of holy places and America's roadside attractions -- and this story definitely gets you in the mood to hit the road, taking in the small towns and tourist traps along the way, and experiencing for yourself their peculiar brand of magic.

The story is in turns witty and sweet, raw and disturbing, thought-provoking and speckled with hints of in-your-face, "shit, yeah" enlightenment. It's laugh-aloud funny and tragic, at times subtly so. And even in the tale's slowest moments, there is an inescapable sense of behind-the-scenes activity, a current of pulsating energy, intangible danger and deep questions that might never be answered.

Add to the mix a cunning scheme for robbing a bank without ever setting foot inside (which I suspect will tempt a fair number of wannabe felons to buy a copy), a persistent dead wife and, I'm fairly certain, a brief cameo appearance by Delerium from Gaiman's own The Sandman. Like threads of a fine detailed tapestry, like the roots and branches of Odin's World Tree, seemingly unrelated characters and plot elements come together in a complex and colorful whole.

American Gods is an absorbing, clever, unsettling, thoroughly wonderful book which casts new light on America's mythologies, homegrown and imported alike. Gaiman just keeps on getting better.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 30 June 2001

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