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In which Netty goes on a road trip with American Gods …

April 22, 2012

ImageI have been fascinated by the US of A for as long as I can remember. I suspect that for pretty much everyone in the western world (and elsewhere, for that matter), it is much the same – whether you like it or not, admit to it or not. Nothing is as all pervading, as all encompassing, as the effect that this whacking great monolith of a country has, and has had, over all our lives. You grow up drenched in American culture – from TV and movies to music and fashion. It is a place you know, through sheer repetitiveness of its imagery, before you get there – and even if you never get there.

Neil Gaiman is an English writer who moved to the US – specifically, Minneapolis – in 1992. In his 2011 introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of American Gods (first published in 2001), the author’s “preferred text” and the elongated version Andy and I read for this blog, Gaiman is vague about when he started this book, but perhaps it was shortly thereafter. It was his fourth published novel, but Gaiman’s bibliography is sprawling and chockful of graphic novels and comics, short stories, young adult fiction and screenplays.

My only previous encounter with Gaiman’s work (unsurprising, seeing he deals primarily in the realm of fantasy; and quite frankly I would rather read chick-lit, which I loathe, than fantasy) was the novel Good Omens, his 1990 collaboration with Terry Pratchett, which I loved. So Gaiman was a no-brainer as an ANRC choice. (I have since discovered, through research, that Pratchett did the majority of the writing and editing of that book; if I had known that beforehand, perhaps I would have insisted on reading a Discworld novel instead.)

American Gods is essentially Gaiman’s love letter to his adopted country, much in the same way that U2, a quartet of Irish boys, released two albums (1987’s The Joshua Tree and 1988’s Rattle And Hum) that document their fascination for a land that is not their own, yet looms larger than life for them. American Gods is a road map across the great, dark, beating heart of an iconic country. In the original introduction, Gaiman states that it is “a work of fiction, not a guidebook”; he is more expansive in 2011, elaborating on how he essentially wrote the book “on the road”, from Chicago to San Diego, Minneapolis to Florida. The landmarks are real; some have been deliberately obscured. You could hire a car (a big, old Yankee car, like a Pontiac or a Mustang; of course it would have to be a convertible) and follow in the protagonist Shadow’s footsteps. In fact, that was exactly what I was envisioning as I was devouring the pages. Some places you go get under your skin for reasons you can never really articulate, engender an itch you can never truly scratch; I am guessing Neil knows exactly what I mean here.

Oh yeah, American Gods is also a pretty fine treatise on religion. It is summed up, neatly enough, on page 504. ‘Whiskey Jack’ tells Shadow: “Look, this is not a good country for gods”. If the heart of this book is the country itself, its raison d’etre goes much deeper. The native Indians aside, America is a country of migrants, all of whom have brought with them, in their hearts and minds, their own gods from the lands of their origins. As the people grow, evolve and die, so too do their gods.

It is difficult to sum up such a huge, unwieldy, meandering mess of a book like this, and especially without spoiling it for those who are yet to read it – and yes, this is definitely a book that needs to be read – but basically its premise is that the gods of the old, gods who are forgotten, have been surpassed or made redundant, are preparing for a battle royale to the death with the new order. Shadow, an ex-crim who has served three years on the inside for a bank job done at the behest of his wife, is an unwitting conduit in this war. Newly released, on his way home to bury his wife Laura, who was killed in a car accident just days before, Shadow crosses paths with the mysterious Wednesday on a redirected plane flight. He is eventually cajoled into Wednesday’s services and the pair embark on a lengthy road trip, knowing that a storm – both literal and metaphorical – is brewing, attempting to outrun and outbid it, against the odds.

(Pardon me any vagueness here, but I am treading carefully, very, very conscious of not wanting to pre-empt it for potential readers in any way, shape or form.)

American Gods is divided into three sections – “Shadows”, “My Ainsel” and “The Moment of the Storm” – with an epilogue, and also a postscript. Gaiman says the book has been very “divisive”, and that readers either love it or hate it. It has won major sci-fi, fantasy and horror awards, which should give the reader some indication of the sort of breadth and ground it covers. Everyone who reads it will get something different out of it; for me, it was the American road trip – and its pit-stops in the various towns and cities – that was its prevailing factor, followed by daylight, then the mythology of the various gods. Shadow’s story is intersected by seemingly unconnected chapters entitled “Coming to America” or “Somewhere in America”; personally, I could have done with a few less of these, but when they are done well (Salim, Bilquis – despite what Andy says), they are magnificent, fully realised standalone pieces. The characterisation is unique and plentiful – Gaiman has a particular knack for finely drawn, sensitively depicted females, particularly Laura and Samantha Black Crow.

The 10th anniversary edition is some 12,000 words longer than the original, clocking in at just shy of 580 pages. Now, we’re all busy peeps here – who has time to read a 600-odd-page book these days? But if you’re going to read American Gods, you might as well do it properly. In addition to the original and new introductions, this edition also includes a Shadow novella, The Monarch of the Glen, originally published in the 2006 short-story collection Fragile Things, and a 2011 Twitter interview for SFX magazine. Gaiman is reportedly planning a sequel, while a televised series for HBO (thank God – they are the only ones who could possibly do it justice), co-written by Gaiman, is in the works.

I don’t know if I will read anything else Gaiman has written, and I doubt very much I will ever re-read American Gods, but I am very glad I have done so at least the once. One thing I would love to do is to recreate Shadow’s journey across the States. So be it the journey, or the destination: it is your choice. Read it, and then decide. You may love it, or hate it. But I guarantee that either way, you’ll be glad that you did.

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