I read American Gods a few years ago and enjoyed it but it didn’t really grab me. But, I
have to admit, I’m excited about the upcoming TV adaptation. William Morrow has taken advantage of the hype to re-release American Gods today with a new cover. They were kind enough to send me a copy, so I have an excuse to revisit American Gods and read the Author’s Preferred Edition (the review below is of the original version).
American Gods is the sort of book that you can tell is supposed to be Important and to offer some great insight into American culture. But for the life of me I can’t pin down just what that importance is. And if it’s a look into Middle America, but it’s cloudy, as if viewed through a smoky piece of glass. I suspect people whose only view of Middle America is from above (and from fiction) will read it and say, ‘yes, it’s just like that!’ and people like myself who have lived in Middle America will read it and say, ‘no, that’s not quite right.’ What’s left is just a book full of beautiful prose and mediocre plotting (the plotting remains to be seen, but it certainly seems that the TV adaptation will have some striking visuals).
The premise of American Gods is simple. Gods are created and draw power from the belief, worship, and sacrifice of regular people. The various people who came to America brought their gods with them, subsequently forgot them, and then went on to create new gods (e.g., media). But the old, forgotten gods remain. They are left understandably put out by new gods replacing them. (Oh, and there are manifestations for each god in each applicable country, hence they really are American Gods. I think neither I nor Gaiman has any idea why arbitrary lines on a map make any difference to gods.) The gods tend to call to mind the line from the intro to the old Kevin Sorbo Hercules TV show that “the ancient gods were petty and cruel.”Our protagonist, Shadow, is let out of prison after a three-year stint at the beginning of the novel. With nothing to go home to, he accepts a job offer from a mysterious man. A significant portion of the rest of the book is spent crisscrossing the US. There are plot twists, but none that aren’t either unsurprising or rather illogical. One sub-plot is just sort of shoehorned in (I think we can see the roots of why this happened in the Q&A with Gaimon included at the end of the book). For a book that is supposed to make you think, far too often thinking about it exposes gaping logical holes.
American Gods reminds me of the work of Cormac McCarthy on a certain level. It’s not that it has much at all in common stylistically (it doesn’t, and is much easier to read than anything I’ve read by McCarthy). It’s more a parallel to the line on McCarthy that he writes poetry as much as prose but his books aren’t much for plot. The writing here isn’t quite as beautiful as McCarthy’s (although again, it’s easier to read), but it is certainly beautiful. There is more to the plot than typical of McCarthy’s work, but the plotting isn’t the strength of American Gods and it meanders. What American Gods lacks, at least to me, is the epiphany of sorts I always get when I finish a McCarthy novel, where I set the book down and just say, ‘wow.’ I think Gaiman was going for something similar here, and it seems a lot of other people had such a moment but to my frustration I did not.
I’ll watch the show, but I’m still going to stick to making See Rock City jokes when I’m on Lookout Mountain.
4 of 5 Stars.