American Gods
April 17, 2017 10:59 AM - by Neil Gaiman - Subscribe

Neil Gaiman's American Gods is the story of Shadow—released from prison just days after his wife and best friend are killed in an accident—who gets recruited to be bodyguard, driver, and errand boy for the enigmatic trickster, Mr. Wednesday. So begins Shadow’s dark and strange road trip, one that introduces him to a host of eccentric characters whose fates are mysteriously intertwined with his own. For, beneath the placid surface of everyday life, a storm is brewing—an epic war for the very soul of America—and Shadow is standing squarely in its path.
posted by filthy light thief (25 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Posted ahead of the upcoming Starz-produced series, discussed on the Blue previously.

One more book link: Neil Gaiman's American Gods blog posts, from newest to oldest, so you'll have to page back quite a bit, as he made 126 posts up through July 14, 2001, with a few more posts tagged into the group in the years since.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:05 AM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Pleased to see this, as I just started a re-read in anticipation of the show.

Something I didn't catch the first time through -- which was, in my defense, 16 years ago -- was the reference to Julian Jaynes on page 133 (of the first edition, anyway; it's in Shadow's first encounter with Sam):
She chewed a hangnail. "I read some book about brains," she said. "My roommate had it and she kept waving it around. It was like, how five thousand years ago the lobes of the brain fused and before that people thought when the right lobe of the brain said anything it was the voice of some god telling them what to do. It's just brains."
posted by uberchet at 11:40 AM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is one of those books where there are definitely nitpicks and problems and things I don't care for, but it works as a wonderful thing anyway. It's very Gaiman being his Gaiman-est, and something that can rub me the wrong way but it just doesn't matter when I'm reading it.
posted by PussKillian at 11:46 AM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh man oh man... I have so many thoughts about this book, but I can never quite get them into words that truly convey what I mean. I'll try.

The central conceit of the book was fascinating. (And hey! I'm even willing to overlook the fact that most of the old gods in the story never had any sort of foothold in America to begin with, and that the biggest gods that people worship in America were almost completely left out of the story...) The tour of America was fun. I liked many of the characters and I enjoyed trying to figure out what god they were, or learning about old gods I'd never heard of before. Yet... the story seemed to never go anywhere. The whole time I was reading it I kept thinking, "something is about to happen and it's going to be awesome!" Suddenly I was halfway through the book and I realized that STILL nothing had happened. And then the big climax of the book is... nothing happening.

It's like he wrote a book about the rise to power of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, but then WWII was canceled because Hitler decided that Germany didn't need to expand and conquer Europe after all. (Breaking out Godwin's Law early in this conversation!)

Okay, maybe the book was really a character study and the point wasn't so much plot, rather how it affected our main character?

Nope. There was no character growth. It didn't really feel like the story was about Shadow coming to grips with his wife's death, or life after prison. I never grew to like Shadow. I never even really got a sense of who he is. So much of the story he is just there, but never actually taking part in things. And there was not any sort of internal battle. He never believed in any old gods, and he didn't seem particularly keen on the new gods either. I don't mind when a story is told through a non-participating "observer", but it always felt like Shadow had an important role to play or some unique perspective. Like the book, his character went nowhere.

As a Gaimain fan, I walked away from the book with a whole lot of disappointment. But mostly I walked away with a whole lot of indifference. It made me feel absolutely nothing. I can't even bring myself to hating it, because there was nothing to hate.

That said, I'm tentatively excited for the show. If it can live up to the potential the book failed to achieve it could be amazing.
posted by 2ht at 11:54 AM on April 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

So much of the story he is just there, but never actually taking part in things.

This has always been my issue with Gaiman's books (outside of comic work) - they very frequently center on this 'magical Oliver Twist' narrative where the protagonist is whisked from fantastical scenario to fantastical scenario and just sort of gawps at it, and then swooshes off to the next setpiece... it's like Gaiman has a bunch of short stories he wants to write about each of these different discrete moments, but has to string them all together under the unifying theme of 'oh yeah and this guy is there, trying to not be in the way'.
posted by FatherDagon at 12:35 PM on April 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

American Gods was really good if you were more interested by its atmosphere and potential of ideas than what actually happened. 2ht and FatherDagon already sum up what I think of it.
posted by yueliang at 4:23 PM on April 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

I agree with the above, there's a lot that I liked and then I was just like... why are we spending all this time watching a normal-ass dude chilling in a small town eating pasties pasties pasties and doing coin tricks coin tricks coin tricks while an epic conflict between the gods is happening someplace else entirely? And why doesn't Shadow have a personality?

I think that the show, just by virtue of not taking place entirely inside Shadow's perspective, has a good chance of avoiding those pitfalls.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:32 PM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have to admit, I really got interested in eating pasties after seeing how many times Shadow ate them. I feel I mostly have fond feelings towards books that seem to involve a lot of food in them. Maybe I was supposed to empathize with being in Shadow's place - I'm important but not cool enough to be witnessing the epic battles between the gods. So I eat pasties instead. Oh, to be a mortal...
posted by yueliang at 6:27 PM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh goodness, for so many years I thought I was the only one who felt this way about American Gods! Everyone I know has always raaaaaaved about it - it's their favourite Gaiman, etc. I'm not crash hot on Gaiman, yet I've read a weirdly large amount of his work, and it really didn't make an impact on me for the precise reasons you've all outlined.

I was so disappointed by the ending. Like, what's cooler, a war between gods, or "It was all a trick". It was all a fucking trick, really? Reaaaaaaallllllly?

I dunno, as a kid who was fascinated by mythology I should have been right in the wheelhouse for this book, but I found the application really inconsistent. Czernobog was done well, I thought but I found some of the norse stuff really... simplistic for example.
posted by smoke at 8:06 PM on April 17, 2017

Best book part was day-to-day life in the small town, avoiding freezing to death or dying of boredom.

Best standalone anecdote was the Chapter 11 Interlude, which tells the story of twins Wututu and Agasu, two children enslaved. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who can tolerate it, because I cry at the end, always. I honestly think just this story could change a racist's mind if they would listen to it. Dear God. The 10th anniversary audiobook features Gaiman himself reading it.

Worst part of book was, for me, the halfhearted stab at visualizing/narrating the buffalo/native American gods. Just really dragging and slow that whole segment was, and also, hard for me to visualize. Which is a contemptible thing to say about a gifted writer like Neil -- it was just plain boring as well as confusing.

Can't wait for the show because my boo Ricky Whittle is Shadow.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 8:32 PM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yeah, Gaiman has such a rep I was all set to like this book and found it very meh (for all the reasons stated above). He's got lots of great ideas, but he wants them to be Important. He'd be better off just trying to be funny and throwaway. He could've been the next Douglas Adams, but instead he has to be taken Seriously.
posted by rikschell at 8:36 PM on April 17, 2017

"I never grew to like Shadow. I never even really got a sense of who he is. So much of the story he is just there, but never actually taking part in things."

Number one gripe with the book right there. I found myself asking, "What does the protagonist want?" and being absolutely unable to answer. That's ... not a solid hook on which to hang an entire book.
posted by komara at 9:07 PM on April 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think Gaiman's short story collections can show off his range of styles, including some good humor. I never thought of him as akin to Adams, but I will look for those elements when re-reading his works.

If you want to geek out over the geography of American Gods, here's a Google Maps of the American Gods route, broken down by chapter sets, and Arteries of America has their own American Gods roadtrip, with more details and photos of the locations. It'll be interesting to see if the show actually uses these locations, or takes some artistic license.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:10 PM on April 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

(And hey! I'm even willing to overlook the fact that most of the old gods in the story never had any sort of foothold in America to begin with, and that the biggest gods that people worship in America were almost completely left out of the story...)

I parsed that a little differently. My read was that it's not that these particular old gods were ever gods who were worshipped in America to an enormous amount, it was that they got brought over as part and parcel of a culture and got recognized "enough," and then less, and now just barely.

I am personally okay with Shadow as a kind of blank conduit enough that it didn't mar my enjoyment of the book, but I don't disagree with that criticism of him (and of Gaiman's tendency to rely on such a figure in his novels.)
posted by desuetude at 9:26 PM on April 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

One of the problems with American Gods to the modern reader, that might have been less of a problem to contemporary readers, is that it goes all-in on the idea of America as a land of immigrants. Hence its focus on immigrant gods over native ones. It's both a boon and a bane, really.

It'd be appropriative as Hell for a British writer like Gaiman to try to develop an authentic voice for Native American gods. Not that it stopped him from trying to do the same for African gods like Anansi, but he's an ancillary character in this book. Whereas I think the "Why wasn't this book about gods that Americans actually worshipped?" question implies that the book should have had Native American gods in the place of the central characters like Shadow and Mr. Wednesday. Which is an entirely fair point, of course, but at the same time I'm really, really glad that Gaiman took the direction he did instead.

(And then when you start considering what the gods are doing in the actual plot, and gee it kind of seems appropriate that the head of the pantheon most closely associated with Nazi ideology is conspiring to start a war just to accrue more power to himself, doesn't it? And that he's doing it specifically in America, rather than back in the old country.)
posted by tobascodagama at 7:13 AM on April 18, 2017

My favorite interlude was the one about the djinn - as a short story I thought it was just totally excellent.

I have a MAJOR skeeve with the Native American gods interlude, because it essentially blames the conquering of America on the Native Americans fucking up which is for obvious reasons super not chill.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:29 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Supernatural (the tv series) had a fun episode with a bunch of gods meeting at a motel to plot their something. A fun yarn about good ol' myths. (giving Gaiman a cameo would have been perfect). It reminded me (or vice versa) of American Gods, a fun new story about old stories.
posted by sammyo at 8:35 AM on April 18, 2017

Something I've never figured out, and I just finished listening to the audio book -- who does Wednesday meet in Vegas? Is he a modern god of Commerce or something older? He's so unnamed that Shadow can't remember him at all? I feel like I missed something in that section.

As a set piece goes, I love Jacquel & Ibis and their funeral home, and I think Gaiman does a really good job developing their relatively brief relationship so when Shadow meets them in the land of the dead, as a reader, I'm happy to see them return.

Listening to the audio book (the original, not the full cast) also made me feel much more warmly toward Hinzlemann. Gaiman does a good job creating that voice and making him endearing even though I knew what was coming.

I enjoy the book, but the last third is still a drag.

My favorite interlude was the one about the djinn - as a short story I thought it was just totally excellent.

Agreed, it's an excellent self-contained piece of the book.
posted by gladly at 10:17 AM on April 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

He's so unnamed that Shadow can't remember him at all? I feel like I missed something in that section.

It's been a while since I read the book, but maybe it's just a "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" gag?
posted by tobascodagama at 10:21 AM on April 18, 2017

I literally just read that bit last night, and it doesn't come off as a "happens in Vegas" gag at all. There's something we're missing.
posted by uberchet at 10:39 AM on April 18, 2017

There's a lot of speculation online about the identity of the god they meet in Vegas. A round-up of (not particularly convincing) speculation and Neil's (refusal to) answer here.
posted by merriment at 12:35 PM on April 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm glad that the forgotten god remains unknown, and your link led me to another link with even more speculation which varies between convincing and less so.
posted by gladly at 12:44 PM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

A comment for those reading and considering an audio book versus reading the book: the audio book gives away some identities that are supposed to be secrets (or at least not completely obvious) as you read the book. Perhaps this makes Shadow feel more like the dolt he's supposed to be (or at least as others see him), while the listener is clued in head of the protagonist.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:40 PM on April 29, 2017

My read on Shadow is that he is the god of doubt. He is "Shadow, of Doubt". The power of the gods is derived from belief. Belief in the gods creates them and sustains them. Shadow is an incarnation of doubt.

There's an episode at the end of the book where Shadow finally realizes where the missing girls are going, and that Hinzelmann is responsible. When he confronts Hinzelmann he says:
"You want to kill me? [...] Go ahead. Do it. I'm a dead man anyway. I know you own this town --
it's your little world. But if you think no one's going to come looking for me, you're living in a dream world.
It's over, Hinzelmann. One way or another, it's done."
Shadow defeats Hinzelmann by instilling doubt in him.

Immediately after the fight with Hinzelmann, Chad Mulligan is despondant, he is certain that he has betrayed his own values as a police officer. Shadow is able to make Chad doubt his self-condemnation, which probably saves his life.
posted by rustcrumb at 5:31 PM on August 18, 2017

I just listened to the original audiobook. It was wonderful.
posted by lalochezia at 12:13 PM on July 11, 2022

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