I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s epic American road trip, full of Norse gods and tricksters. I kept turning the pages, enthralled pondering which god was which, and which myths would come into play.
If I had started reading this book as a teenager, I suspect I would have hated it. I treated my mythologies very seriously, and the slightest deviation from the versions I knew sent me into a spin. “That’s not how it’s supposed to be!” I would have said with a frown. I was very much a myth purist.
Anyhow, I absolutely loved this book.
The concept is that as immigrants came along to America, they brought their beliefs with them. And, as gods are created thanks to the force of human faith, human-made gods are still living in America. But they are growing weaker – not many people know who they are anymore. Instead, people are worshipping the newly found gods of the modern world. The old gods are determined not to give up without a fight. Among all this chaos is Shadow, a former prisoner, struggling to recover from the loss of his wife, Laura.
I really enjoyed Shadow as a character. The way his thoughts were portrayed reminded me of Hemingway: simple, short sentences dominate in Shadow’s head. He likes to practice his coin tricks to entertain children. In prison, he loved reading Herodotus.
“Call no man happy until he is dead” is a saying of Shadow’s borrowed from Herodotus.
I also like the portrayal of Wednesday – he was almost a sympathetic character, in spite of himself. In spite of his past and what we learn about his motives.
“There’s never been a true war that wasn’t thought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe that they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.”
“And you?” asked Shadow.
“Why are you doing what you are doing?”
“Because I want to,” said Wednesday. And then he grinned “So that’s all right.”
The best bits of the book were the gripping plot and the descriptions of a road-trip through contemporary America, painstakingly accurate and funny.
Shadow and Wednesday drive through little towns, one like the next:
“Each town he passed through had an extra sign up beside the sign that he was now entering Our Town (pop.720) The extra sign announced that the town’s Under-14s team was the third runner-up in the interstate Hundred-Yard Sprint”
Nothing much happens, seems to be Gaiman’s point, except that everything does. The motivations that drove the beliefs in the old gods: the human sacrifices for the sake of rain, of war, and of lust remain exactly as they always were.
By the way, the words ‘lust’ and ‘war’ are not used lightly here: there are some pretty graphic descriptions of both, which make me wonder if I really want to watch them in Amazon’s TV show adaptation of the book.
My favourite surprise appearance in the book has to go to the cat who happens to save the hero by peeking at him in the bathroom
“See, he told himself, and he could almost hear the words being whispered in his ear. It’s painless. Too sharp to hurt. I’ll be gone before I know it.
Then the door to the bathroom swung open, just a few inches, enough for the little brown cat to put her head around the doorframe and “Mrr?” up at him curiously.
“Hey,” he said to the cat. “I thought I locked that door.”
If you know your Egyptian mythology, you can probably guess who the cat is.
All in all, this is a gloriously entertaining romp through contemporary America and mythology.
P.S. I think I would have appreciated it more had I known a few more mythologies – African ones and Native American ones.
I also enjoyed the interview with Gaiman which was included in my edition of the book. I was less keen on the The Monarch of the Glen, which is Gaiman’s attempt to put an American Gods-style spin on Beowulf, which frankly, just doesn’t quite work (though given what I think of Gaiman’s screenplay for the Beowulf movie, it’s perhaps not surprising that I don’t like it).