The underlying premise of American Gods is that deities were imported into the USA by immigrants through the centuries, but were weakened for inattention. Their descent into quasi-humanity sees them opposed by new American gods, those of technology. A great battle is to be fought between the two factions, the new gods to eradicate the old for once and for all while the old are to fight for the preservation of what little is left for them – their lingering existence.
Enter Shadow, tough guy, enlisted by Wednesday, (a god whose identity is evident from his chosen name). We see what ensues from Shadow’s perspective both as an observer and, later, very much as a participant. Indeed, Shadow’s role is to become pivotal.
The underlying theme has echoes of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, but Gaiman isn’t in this for laughs. Quite what he’s in it for I’m still none too sure having reached the end of the work, nor do I feel as if I’ve lost something along the way that may have revealed Gaiman’s authorial intent. But so much for the premise. What of how it is presented?
For well-over the first half of the work there was something of a film noir atmosphere as American Gods seemed set to fail my otherworldy test. Some works of fantasy and science fiction seem to have their otherworldliness as an add-on to a story which would have worked equally well with the main protagonists being realistic, functioning in a realistic environment, and for over half the novel this may have been a tale of two rival gangs sufficiently powerful to have a national reach. Wednesday roams the country trying to enlist other gods for the battle ahead with varying degrees of success, but though the story wanders strange realms from time to time given the underlying premise there’s nothing there that makes that wandering essential. Moreover, though there is action aplenty, there’s little real development in the plot. An enjoyable read, yes – Gaiman is a good writer – but still, reading was becoming a bit of a slog by half-way with the story seeming to get pretty-much nowhere.
Some way into the second half of the work the pace begins to accelerate and hits a nice tempo, but not for long. The pace continues to accelerate until it ends in something of a rush leaving me regretting Gaiman hadn’t pruned the first half of the novel to give himself more breathing space for the final third. It’s here the otherworldliness justifies itself, here that the plot truly develops, and here that some of the more fetching ideas are to be found only to be hurried over as if Gaiman wanted to get it all over with. I gather from his acknowledgements at the end that he wasn’t hitting deadlines, so perhaps that would explain it. The pace drops back to a reasonable level at the end for an extended coda as Gaiman ties up the loose ends, and here we have some of the best writing in the book as a consequence.
Bemusing throughout is Gaiman’s selectivity. We seem to have many religions represented here, but some notable absences – namely the Judaic religions. I had expected Jesus, or perhaps Moses to pop up somewhere to play some crucial role, but these more powerful aspects of thriving religions were notable in their absence. Perhaps the antics of these lesser gods is beneath them, but certainly I’d have liked a little more expansion on that, and perhaps a nod in their direction. American gods in the absence of reference to Christianity in particular is too glaring an absence. True, the Judaic religions would have been difficult to fit into the narrative as it stands, but by not doing so Gaiman rather undermines the premise of the work.
Nonetheless, Gaiman is a good writer and that is the work’s saving grace, and American Gods is readable for that if for little else.