Review of “American Gods”

The number of people I know that love American Gods is staggering. The many positive reviews I’d heard by word of mouth should have been enough for me to read it shortly after it’s initial publication. When I further consider the impact that Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series, recently collected and bound into two attractive hardcover books Volume 1 and Volume 2 available here, had on me it should have been a no brainer. The Sandman was, after all, the first true graphic novel that I read and was one that captivated me over the summer my sophomore year of high school so much that I read it twice in succession. Seven years later, when Gaiman published another graphic novel within that universe I even drove two hours to have him sign my copy. Despite this it is only now, thirteen years after it’s publication and shortly before it’s adaptation for TV, that I finally got around to reading it. As I’ve been getting most of my books lately, I picked up a used copy from the library and started it in the guest room of my grandmother’s air-conditionless mobile home 2 weeks before the official start of summer.
I’d completed the book in under a week and have been since struggling with how to properly categorize my experience of the book. As an American-style road-trip quest with supernatural elements, Gaiman’s stated intention, he hits the mark. Shadow’s release from prison and subsequent adventure amongst American Gods certainly hit all the major plot points required of the genre. There are the grifts, high-stakes confrontations, deadly debts that require payment, evasion of more powerful forces and enough encounters with strange people and gods that keep the pace of the book at a steady pace. Gaiman even does a good job of making the few respites of action look on the surface to be just that and nothing else. But as could be expected in this magical world underlying the façade of people’s lives, nothing is coincidental. Of the two aspects of the book that left me uneasy one is major and one is minor.
The paucity of tarrying with the more profound aspects of this magical world is the major issue that leaves me feeling slightly off about the book. I recognize that this is in part a result of my reading it while very aware of my own desires for a certain style of literary intervention. As such I felt that my hopes and desires took away from some of my pleasure in reading the book. At certain plot or narrative points I just awaited some sort of deeper exposition into the nature of belief, worship, offerings, fate, etc. that while sometimes raised were never dealt with in great detail.
What do I mean? Well ideally I could reference some of the conference papers that I heard at the 2009 NEMLA Conference in Boston, but I cannot. Putting it into a few short sentences, however, I’d say that the deeper edification possible for the reader within the book is just weak. Partially it is because Shadow, who clearly is special but we don’t know why until he is revealed to be the son of Odin-Allfather and thus a half-god, doesn’t represent an Everyman character by any stretch of the imagination. His initial struggle is in coming to terms with the death of his cheating wife (who then comes back to life as a progressively rotting corpse and functions as a Deus Ex-Machina at times so convenient to the continuation of the story as to be unbelievable even in a fantastical world) then learning submission to the wishes for his for-most-of-the-book unknown father, then coming to accept the magical as something that nearly everyone but himself cannot recognize but surely exists. Not that these are enough, per se, to take away from my enjoyment. I guess what I was missing was more along the lines of an individual that felt himself in more awe of the world around him and which could thus create reflections akin to those in a non-fiction work like The Power of Myth, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Myths to Live By or other works by Joseph Campbell. Having read all of these books shortly after Sandman I thought them wonderful compliments and feel that a story like Gaiman’s would have been made better for such reflections.
The second issue that I had with the book is the now dated nature of some of the new God characters. Media and technology are singular. As the struggles to maintain readership/viewership via traditional media outlets over the past 15 years have shown, this is no longer the case. Additionally, some of the descriptions of the gods are somewhat insulting, stereotypes at the time. This itself doesn’t bother me too much – Gods are after all often the human pinnacle of certain human qualities made divine – however in today’s landscape they appear somewhat dated. I’m sure that this won’t be an issue in the TV adaptation, but it was a minor burr when reading. All in all I did enjoy the book, even if I did find Shadow’s internal struggle to drag at times and at some points to be unrealistic.