American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Another book I judged rightly by its cover.

This doesn’t happen to me very often.  I started this book last year, two weeks before Patrick was born.  And, about two weeks ago now, I started it again and finished it.  Usually when I start a book and then have to stop reading it for whatever reason, I never get back to it.

But this time I really wanted to finish it.  Giving birth put a slight time-delay on it, but there was no stopping me.  I was going to read this book.

The premise was plenty to hook me.  The idea is that gods from all culture are created in our minds, and then manifested into real beings.  So, when people began coming to America, all the way back to folks crossing the land bridge, they brought their gods with them in their minds.  And the gods stayed.  Cool, huh?

I also find the Norse pantheon fascinating, and they are the focus of the book.  Such interesting stories full of darkness that could only be created by people who had to live in darkness themselves for a great part of the year.  Odin (in this book, called “Wednesday”) sacrificed one of his eyes to gain inner knowledge.  That’s dark.  Even darker is that he hanged himself on the “World Tree” to learn the secrets of runes.  Sacrifice is a big theme here.

Shadow, the main character, turns out to be...

Neil Gaiman’s style is perfectly matched to his characters in this book.  I read The Graveyard Book by him a few years back, and it is excellent.  American Gods is like The Graveyard Book for adults — much darker, more introspective, and more satisfying, too.  One reviewer called it “Wagnerian noir.”  Perfect.

I love Gaiman’s books for moments like this.  One character is telling our main man, Shadow, what she believes in: “I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid…that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead.”  Ha!  Anytime an author can use a Schrodinger’s Cat reference, I’m impressed.

But my favorite thing about this book is how easily Gaiman can pull the rug out from under you.  Some terrible people and gods exist in this world he’s created, but he “reports” it all poetically but calmly.  Never do I feel like he’s become emotionally overwrought by his character’s deeds.  This is how he’s always able to keep me from seeing a few pages ahead.  I’m an avid reader of mysteries, and you get a feel for what’s going to happen, who the archetypes are, etc.  But not with Gaiman.  When I began reading this book (both times!) I didn’t even think there would be any twists or changes.  I thought it was just going to be a cool, mythology-in-our-time book.  There was a lot more to it than that.  Like dead cat/live cat jokes.

They travel to Vegas in the book, to meet with a god whose name we never know and convince him to join their cause.  Here’s a taste of Gaiman’s insight and odd views:

There is a secret that the casinos possess, a secret they hold and guard and prize, the holiest of their mysteries.  For most people do not gamble to win money, after all, although that is what is advertised, sold, claimed, and dreamed.  But that is merely the easy lie that gets them through the enormous, ever-open, welcoming doors.

The secret is this: people gamble to lose money.  They come to the casinos for the moment in which they feel alive, to ride the spinning wheel and turn with the cards and lose themselves, with the coins, in the slots.  They may brag about the nights they won, the money they took from the casino, but they treasure, secretly treasure, the times they lost.  It’s a sacrifice, of sorts.

Making Vegas into a modern-day religious site.  A place where the people of America come because they know they will lose.  Next time you travel through a casino, look for that — it’s everywhere.  People just happy to be playing.  After all, what other possible explanation is there for coming back and back to Vegas even after you lose?  This is why I like Gaiman — I’d never thought about this before, but he’s found some truth here.

Ultimately, there’s a lot I’d like to say about this book that I can’t, because there’s lots of cover to be blown.  Rather than ruin anything for anyone, I’ll just say that I’m having a hard time doing this book justice.  This is one that will stay with me and make me wonder, as our world keeps evolving and changing, what kinds of gods are being created as we think.

*If you think you might like this book, but hesitate when I talk about how dark it is (and it is dark, believe me,) think about the book Runemarks by Joanne Harris.  It’s a similar book based on Norse mythology, but for young adults.  Loads of fun.

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