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American Gods

A novel by Neil Gaiman
(2011, William Morrow)
[original copyright 2001]

Accepting a job from a mysterious man after being released from prison, Shadow learns about old gods who have taken form in American society, discarded, and ready for a war against the new gods of technology.


-- First reading (ebook)
May 1st to 18th, 2022


I was awed by the author’s writing style, right from the beginning, even though he was describing the everyday actions of an individual, such as walking, turning a knob, touching something, and so on –so mundane, but so well described, to the point where the author made it interesting. The material, while not my usual interest, was still kept interesting, especially as we observed it from Shadow’s point of view. Seeing Wednesday’s scams, and the way he tries to wheedle people into doing his bidding, we can understand why Shadow follows him –he’s charismatic, and it’s in his nature to trick people. The discovery of the forgotten gods, which were brought to America by various immigrants, was compelling. As is probably true of most people, I’ve never thought about the beliefs people shed as they crossed the Atlantic, looking for a better life. Pieces of gods brought from the old worlds, and the new things that can be considered as worship, from TV to cell-phones, litter our collective memories. It’s interesting to see them come to life here. Unfortunately, I found the ending to be disappointing, in the way Shadow resolved everything. The con job and the disappearances in the small town were revelations when they came, but to think the actual war could end this way seemed unlikely. I was expecting the story about the messenger, told somewhere in the middle of the book, to become his fate.

Spoiler review:

Not knowing much about this book, other than that a released convict traveled the US, I put off reading it for a long time. I was expecting a boring rampage through a post-apocalyptic society, overrun by wars between the gods, or something… I was so wrong. The writing is very casual, but in a way that brings the reader into Shadow’s world, as he is in prison, waiting to get out, then he’s released, but only after being told that his wife is dead, and then becoming employed by Wednesday, even though the job isn’t specific at all.

The author describes the most mundane aspects of Shadow’s life, but in the way that makes the reader nod and accept that this is natural –and inviting. Like the way Wednesday cons people, we are being conned, even as Shadow becomes an unwitting pawn in the war, between whom, Shadow doesn’t know, but begins to suspect. I thought the way Wednesday had people donate money to him by posing as a security officer outside a broken bank deposit slot was hilarious, and potentially devastating, as people might actually try it. According to the author’s afterword, somebody did, and got caught.

Wednesday turns out to be Odin, the Allfather of ancient Norse mythology, and he’s trying to gather the old gods behind him to battle the new gods of technology and money. Shadow accompanies him on several of these escapades, spending time with a whole bunch of gods I knew absolutely nothing about. But that doesn’t matter, because they were all interesting, even the Russian ones who were stuck in the run-down building. They travel to various places in the US, stopping at powerful spots, marked by all those strange “biggest *blank* in the world” locations –people were prompted to build things there because they had magical properties, links to the old gods.

He dreams of native Americal gods, buffalo men, strange birds, and more. Some of them promise to bring his dead wife back to life. While he was in prison, Laura started having an affair with one of their good friends, and was calling it off when Shadow was released. I’m pretty sure Wednesday set up her death, giving him oral sex while they were driving, just so he could have Shadow to himself. But Shadow was given a magic coin of the gods, and he dropped it into Laura’s grave, and she came to life as a decaying zombie. It was pretty disgusting, especially as she coughed up maggots and pieces of herself. But he still loved her.

There is an interlude as winter comes, and Shadow stays in a nondescript small town. He befriends an old man, his female neighbor with her son, and the sheriff. He bets on the local wreck that’s pushed out onto the ice, as to when it will sink in the spring. There are curious things he sees in the town, and events conspire to have a pre-teen girl go missing, then to force Shadow to flee. He’s sorry to go, because he pretty much fit in there. Still, Laura’s friend, whose husband she was cheating with, comes to town and starts a commotion, which gets Shadow arrested. Wednesday’s people pick him up, though, and they continue to gather gods. It’s almost time for the war.

The new gods are so afraid of Wednesday that they bring him to the FBI and kill him. Shadow holds vigil tied to the tree of life, where he dies, too, and learns that Wednesday was his father. Easter finds him, though, and brings him back from the dead, and he travels by firebird to the most powerful location in America, where the battle is ready to start. But Laura gets there first, and kills the leader on the opposite side of the battle, who turns out to be Loki.

Wednesday and Loki plotted together to bring about this battle between the gods, a blood sacrifice that would give them both more power. It was a clever plot, reminiscent of the plots Wednesday and Shadow had discussed earlier in the book, and it worked really well. Unfortunately, the part where Shadow overcomes the resurrected shadow-Wednesday then tells all the other gods, new and old, that they were being manipulated, doesn’t work as well. He gave a nice speech, but then the gods turned around and went home. There was an earlier story in the book where the messenger who tried to keep the two sides apart were killed because of the fear and rage that had built between two warring factions, and I wondered if Shadow would get this fate. But the whole thing was anti-climactic.

Laura finds her rest, after being a zombie for the whole book, and Shadow can move on with his life, even going to Iceland, drawn to the old gods in their earlier form, before they were inadverdently brought to America. He even confronts the old man from the small town who was killing children as sacrifices in the trunks of old wrecks out on the ice every winter. A mystery solved. The sheriff burns the man and his house to the ground.

I really enjoyed this book, especially the writing style, which was very smooth and natural. The interactions with the different gods was done in such a way that they were all very interesting, as Shadow suspects, then can confirm, that they are indeed gods. His belief grows through the book, even as he impassively does whatever Wednesday wants. Sometimes he’s left on his own, like in the small town or when he gives Sam the hitch-hiker a lift southward. As a side note, I had no idea that frigid winters wound their way so far south, but had to smile at how the author described the frigid cold, which is a normal winter here.

Highly recommended, just for the writing and the idea that the remnants of the old gods are still lurking around here. I also quite enjoyed the side-chapters that showed how some of the old gods came here, from the Vikings, to immigrants, to prisoners sent from England and other old countries. Very enjoyable and entertaining.


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