I wanted to read something from Neil Gaiman oeuvre because my wife had read and enjoyed his The Graveyard Book, and because he wrote stories in a neighborhood that interests me: where the real world bumps up against the fantastical. So, basically at random (and/or because it was on sale), I picked out American Gods. And as a result, I don’t think I’ll be walking through that neighborhood with Neil Gaiman again.
The premise of the novel is a good one: A convict named Shadow, recently released from prison, falls into the employ of a mysterious man calling himself Mr. Wednesday. Mr. Wednesday (spoiler alert, but then again, the title of the book is American Gods) turns out to be god Odin of Norse mythology. In this world, all the gods of mythology and folklore are real, but the god business ain’t what it used to be. Because they’re no longer getting a steady supply of worship and sacrifices, their lifestyles are less Mount Olympus and more City Dumpus.
Because they’re no longer revered, and because prior experience as “god of mischief” apparently doesn’t play well in a job interview, they’re relegated to the wrong side of the tracks, eking out a living, often in dubiously legal ways. Shadow drives across the country meeting these hard-luck gods as Wednesday tries to rally their support for a mysterious mission.
I thought the premise was promising. It presented a great opportunity to play with some interesting topics — the nature of belief, and more specifically, the nature of belief in modern America; the value of faith and the consequences of its loss; the human need for the spiritual. The execution, though, was just disappointing.
Gaiman cops out on most of the big spiritual questions. Most of the book is spent focused on the emptiness and downright seediness of the fallen gods’ lives, the kind of stuff you could find just as easily on “Sons of Anarchy” or “The Sopranos” without all the tedious reading.
The rest of the book is a mishmash of dream sequences, asides, and imagined history that are supposed to give weight and depth to the story, but as you read them, you can’t help but imagine the author whispering in your ear, “Hey, I’m adding weight and depth to the story!”
Maybe my hopes for the book are different from the typical Neil Gaiman reader, and he writes for his fans, and that’s perfectly fine. But I can’t help but think that he’s leaving a lot of philosophical money on the table with an overly carnal focus on spiritual subjects.