by Neil Gaiman
635 pages, Headline
The Gods Must Be Crazy by Pat Black
The gods are back in business. The ancient ones, of course.
We’ve had a little pocket of goddy films lately, with the revamped Clash Of The Titans (crushing disappointment; Harry Hamlin still rules and Ray Harryhausen will always be my Zeus) and a big screen version of Percy Jackson And The Lightning Thief having flashed before our retinas. A few more are on their way from Olympus, it seems. So, if you find the idea of ancient deities more appealing than the current crop currently being worshipped around the world – and who could blame you? Their stories are much better – here’s a book that might appeal.
American Gods was my first brush with Neil Gaiman on a page since his Future Shocks instalments for the beloved British comic book 2000AD in the 1980s. He’s a very popular figure in the world of fantastic fiction, and I’ve always meant to take a look at his lauded Sandman graphic novel. I didn’t know he had penned the novel Stardust until recently, but was a very big fan of the movie version from a couple of years ago. American Gods seems to have won just about every award going in its field, and it came very highly recommended; this was a Borrowed book, for once, rather than a Loaned one.
It tells the story of Shadow, a very big, if somewhat quiet man being released from prison in the US after a three-year stretch for robbery. You fear for this likeable, somewhat downtrodden man – he just knows that something’s going to go wrong in his last week, and it does when his wife dies in a car crash. Shadow is cast out into a world in which his future appears to have been taken from him, and everything he knew and loved has been turned into a lie.
On a plane trip, he meets up with a man called Mr Wednesday, who appears to have Shadow’s number – showing up where he shows up, knowing exactly what’s happening with him. Wednesday is a con man, and he ends up offering Shadow a job as his bodyguard. Shadow, for want of anything else to do, ends up taking it.
Things start off weird in this book and stay weird, something that sucked me right in. Shadow and Wednesday embark on a road trip across the States on a mysterious quest, encountering a multitude of weird characters along the way. First off, there’s a fight in a bar with what appears to be an Irish leprechaun; later we meet three weird sisters and one strange, hammer-wielding Eastern European man who takes on Shadow at checkers for the right to place a blow in his skull.
It’s soon apparent to us, but not so much the slow-on-the-uptake Shadow, that Mr Wednesday and all those he gathers to him are gods, possessed of great powers, if not high standing in the community. Wednesday is Odin, the All-Father, and he is gathering all the ancient and forgotten gods to his side in a battle with some new ones – the media, drug use, technology, even transport – as part of a changing world which readily forgets those whom it once worshipped.
It’s fun trying to spot the gods; I didn’t realise Wednesday was Odin, but did get the connection between Mr Nancy and Anansi, the spider god of Africa. Anubis and Ibis are working in tandem as two undertakers, it turns out, a very cute touch indeed. There are others whom you might not recognise straight away; intensely erotic female goddesses, celtic figures, piskies. Even Christ is namechecked, just the once. “Believe everything,” Shadow is told in a dream.
It’s made easy to believe because Gaiman’s gods aren’t ever toga-wearing Greeks or giant, outlandish monsters – they are human in form and behaviour. Most of them are down on their luck, possessed of great power but forgotten by the humans, no longer awesome. The Queen of Sheba is a prostitute; there’s an ancient Welsh god who works stocking shelves in a shop; Odin himself is a hustler, reduced to ripping off security guards and seducing teenage virgins. There are a few fantasy segments, including one brilliant scene where Wednesday and Shadow go “behind the scenes” in order to evade certain capture from a shadowy black ops agency hell-bent on catching them. But for the most part, the book takes place in the real world with only the slightest hint that things aren’t quite what they seem.
It also takes place in an America that is friendly and open, for the most part. It’s an audacious move for an Englishman to write what is at heart a road trip across States - through the eyes of an American - and to do it so well. You can tell Gaiman has an affection for the country, and Shadow meets some kind people on his travels, most notably in a snow-bound place called Lakeside, where the residents take him to their hearts. It seemed odd to be reading these scenes in a book about a war between the gods, but I was struck by the honesty and friendliness displayed by characters such as the kindly police sergeant Chad. It chimed with many of my own experiences as a stranger travelling in America, and provided the book with its big thumping heart.
This is a big, ambitious novel and its scope, as well as some of its subject matter and characterisation, reminded me an awful lot of the best of Stephen King. In Shadow’s wife Laura, who returns from the grave to help him out on his quest, we have a character who could sit easily in the pages of some of King’s finest work. There’s great humour in what should be perfectly horrible exchanges between Laura and Shadow, especially given the fact that she died while cheating on him with his best friend. And although she may be reanimated, her bodily dissolution carries on apace.
In Wednesday we have a rare character too, a sly old boots who I was almost certain was Satan, before his Norse lineage is revealed. He has the patter and the panache of a born grifter, and it was fascinating to see him demonstrate his true power and influence in subtle ways.
There’s a fantastic set piece which takes place in a weird roadside attraction, filled with old fairground rides and machinery and bric-a-brac. Apparently a ley-line of some kind, as all roadside attractions are, this forms the setting for phantasmagorical meeting between the gods which Shadow bears witness to, and in which some of them take their true forms. Reality is blurred slightly, but not to a spectacular degree. It’s this bending of the rules of our world without ever breaking them which fascinated me the most. We see it right from the start, when we meet Shadow and witness his obsession with sleight-of-hand coin tricks and conjuring.
Ignoring what the free hand is doing is half the fun in American Gods. The best way of describing this book is to liken it to seeing a magician on stage and actually believing that he is palming that coin, that he is sawing that lady in half, that he has disappeared in a puff of smoke. It’s only an illusion if we allow ourselves to believe we’ve been tricked. Gaiman’s novel deals with great moments of fantasy, but always with a grounding in the real world.
And part of the conclusion takes place in Iceland, which was a delicious irony for me as I watched news footage of smoke spewing from Eyjafjallajokull, ceasing air traffic for much of northern Europe with a few puffs of volcanic ash. This air ban includes Great Britain and Holland, two countries which leaned hard on Iceland to pay back money to banks hit hard by the credit crunch while that country was brought to its knees by financial catastrophe.
I love Iceland – if you look to the right of this review, you’ll see me standing in it – and if it turned out gods should live there, I would not be surprised. In the footage of Eyjafjallajokull’s wrath, in among this furious spectacle of smoke and fire, I was amazed to see red and purple lightning flare up. It’s something to do with charge-inducing collisions created by the smoke and dust, apparently. If you believe in that sort of thing.